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Poetry is itself a thing of God;

He made his prophets poets and
The more we feel of poesie do we
Become like God in love and Power(Barnhart 1223)

Throughout the ages different conceptions have been forwarded on poetry as a form of

artistic expression. It has been both praised as an exhibition of the highest form of human

intellect and ridiculed for its emotivism and its inability to express any kind of

philosophical truth. Within these different conceptions of poetry are the ideas forwarded

by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle as well as critics and poets. i However, though

the notions postulated by these individuals represent divergent perspectives on the value

of poetry all is in agreement with some aspect of the definition of poetry explicated by

Clarence L Barnhart in The New Century Handbook of English Literature which states

that poetry is one of the fine arts which addresses itself to the feelings and imagination

by the instrumentality of musical and moving words; the art which has for its object the

exciting of intellectuals pleasure by means of vivid, imaginative, passionate and

inspiring language usually though not necessarily arranged in the form of measured verse

or numbers (1225). Poetry in effect can be seen as an artistic creation built on

intellectual expression which can influence the actions of men. It has thus helped to shape

and mould the minds of individuals be it to advocate a particular position or to oppose it.

Poetry can therefore be viewed as both a public and private art; private in its sphere of

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expressing the emotions of the speaker or the poet and public in its existence as a

discourse within and on societal norms and values.

Consequently, it is ultimately society which decides the value of poetry; and within this

valuation the sonnet form is placed at the pinnacle of poetic achievement. Constructed

within the walls of European elitismii the sonnet form was seen as an achievement of the

highest intellect where being able to master this art form almost becomes a point of entry

within the realms of social elitism. As Phillis Levin posits in The Penguin Book of the

Sonnet the sonnet is a monument of praise, a field of play, a chamber of sudden change.

In its limited space it has logged from the start the awakening of a rational to an

overwhelming force in the self or the world (xxxvii). It is subsequently this high

estimation within which the sonnet is held in the English language and its acceptance by

a wide cross-section of people which has fostered its use to express and cement different

ideologies within the society.

Within the Victorian age of Empire the sonnet was employed as a means of transferring

the dominant socio-cultural and political ideologies within the society. These ideologies

often entailed the depiction of the European and European civilization and modes of

behavior and enlightenment as the basic norm. Within this transference native lands and

peoples were pivoted as the antithesis of Europe and European civilization; the backward

and uncivilized other.iii Consequently with the expansion of the Victorian Empire to

encompass different territories throughout the world ; Victorian ideologies were

transmitted through the master cultures imposition of imperialism via education.

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Within this system the sonnets importance as an indication of intellectual superiority was

again reiterated. The sonnets of Empire such as those written by Hardy and Tennyson

thus became the foundation on which colonial literary traditions were based.

Consequently, with the sonnet now being seen as the vehicle of empire it became a site

of both adoration and repulsion and also a site on mimicry, appropriation and assimilation

throughout the empire. Through the appropriation of the sonnet form alternative

ideologies to those forwarded within empires discourse have been infused within its

walls by the post-colonialist writers who must write within and paradoxically against

these ideologies. Through the examination of the sonnets of Lord Alfred Tennyson,

Thomas Hardy, Derek Walcott and Claude McKay it will be highlighted how the sonnet

served the dual purpose of both constructing and deconstructing empires ideologies.

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The Sonnet as Evidence of Empire

The works of Tennyson and Hardy represent two divergent approaches to the depiction

of the dominant ideology within the Victorian age of empire. Tennysons imperialism is

advocated in the poets expression of loyalty to the empire which includes the

glorification of military prowess in the conquest and subjugation of weaker states.

Additionally, the poets advocacy of the white mans burden white racial superiority

and the civilizing mission expresses the most dominant ideologies of empire to be

witnessed throughout that empire. However, Hardy far from following the radicalist

approaches of Tennyson utilizes social realism to selectively portray the Victorian moral

and cultural consciousness and in so doing fosters and spreads empires cultural and

socio-political practices.

In the sonnets Bonaparte and Poland Tennyson clearly embeds the aforementioned

imperialist ideologies within the strictures of the sonnet. Bonaparte is a sonnet dedicated

to the fall of Napoleon at the hands of British military supremacy. Using a variation of

the petrarchian sonnet form, Tennyson constructs the idea of the might and right of the

British Empire who must subdue all under its power. This is most aptly seen in the poets

use of diction and imagery where words such as with thunders and with lightenings are

used to construct British supremacy and power. Both words act to connote power, glory

and magnificence as well as place the British forces on a level parallel with forces of

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God. This in turn acts as an extension of another Victorian patriotic ideology which has

as its main tenet the notion of Victorian Englands superiority as a God-given right. This

idea can be further seen in lines 13 and 14 which notes

we taught him, late he learned humility:

Perforce like those who Gideon schoold with briers.

Through the use of the image of Gideon the poet once again invokes God-given right or

ordination suggesting too that they are the mighty Gideons and Gods champion.

Additionally, in this depiction of British supremacy diction is utilized by Tennyson to

construct the image of a glorious battle and the British soldier is consequently

constructed as the epitome of bravery and strength with a stubborn heart of oak while

those who dare to challenge this power is regarded as a Mad man! who must be taught

humility. Thus Tennysons use of diction and imagery enables a precise portrayal of

imperialist loyalty through the glorification of military prowess. This can further be seen

in the poets use of form where the 14 lines of the sonnet are used to present an extended

image of British patriotism. The first eight lines of the sonnet in keeping with the

petrarchian tradition contains an AB rhyming pattern and present a romanticized and far

removed concept of war where the exists no real indication of the devastation that this

war brings. In lines two and three which carry a successive B rhyme which notes to

chain with chains, and bind with bands, that island queen who sways the floods and

lands the lyricism implicit within these lines forwards this romanticized ideal of war

where the victor of the battle will eventually be the ultimate ruler of the land.

Additionally, in line seven which notes Peal after peal, the British battle broke, is again

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the use of alliteration by the poet in British battle broke expresses the might and

forcefulness of the British army.

Tennysons sonnet Poland presents an ironic juxtaposition of European nationalism and

military glorification. Within this petrarchian sonnet the image of European dominance is

reversed to one of subjugation where the oppressor has now become the oppressed.

However, where the role of conqueror and subjugator was previously glorified this role is

now being depicted as cruel and barbaric. In lines one to three where the speaker asks

How long, O God, shall men be ridden down,

And trampled under by the last and least, Of men?

the oppressive nature of imperial dominance is highlighted. Additionally these lines also

serve as a further indication of the racist ideologies of white supremacy existent within

the Victorian age of empire. Poland which was overridden by the Moores of the Ottoman

empire has been removed from the seat of dominance and is now in the role of the

subjugated. However this idea does not rest well with the Victorian demarcations of racial

superiority and the rule of empire and imperial dominance is now depicted in a less

glorified and a baser and crueler light.

In this sonnet as in Bonaparte diction and image is again used to construct imperial

ideologies. The use of the words the last and least of men is again a clear indication of

imperialist racism in which the poets diction constructs a distinction between the races;

one in which anyone outside their race, society and culture is the last and least of men.

Diction and imagery is further used by the poet to set up a parallel between European

civilization and that of the other. Lines three to four which state the heart of Poland hath

not ceased, To quiver, tho her sacred blood doth drown, is a clear contrast to the image

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of the other in lines seven and ten which notes that Oergrown Barbarian in the East

icy-hearted Muscovite. Within this contrast the notion of the other being the antithesis of

European civilization is depicted where the Europeans are portrayed as gods chosen her

sacred blood while the other becomes the icy-hearted infidel.

The poets use of imagery and diction also further depicts two systems of authority which

represents the construction of empire, namely that of gender and religion. Religious

discourse is used as the site of authority upon which the notion of European racial

supremacy is built, hence, her sacred blood. Additionally the speakers invocation of

God in the first line and subsequent reference to him throughout the poem speaks to the

use of divine or religious authority as justification for their oppression of other races;

hence when their position is reversed they seek to call on him. However it is within this

lament that the poems implicit irony is revealed as they can be seen as just as barbaric as

those whom they ridicule.

The issue of gender is also revealed within the sonnet through Tennysons use of imagery

and diction. The image of the defeated Poland is represented as a frail, weak and failing

female. Thus the words her and she are used to refer to the city that is being

plundered by that oergrown barbarian in the East, the conqueror which is represented

as a male figure. Within this discourse of the conquest and subjugation of nations the

objectification and subjugation of the female body within Victorian discourse is also

revealed. The female body is depicted as a sight of conquest on which male dominance is

to be exercised which the female must passively and piously accept. Additionally it

further speaks to the Victorian sexual politics of race. Poland again stands for Victorian

femininity, virtue and chastity; the virtuous white European female, while the barbarian

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nation refers to the native male who though lesser than his European counterpart is also

somehow a threat to the virtuous white female.

In the sonnet A Church Romance and Over the Coffin Hardy employs social realism

as a means of representing the prevailing culture and social attitudes which direct the

individuals behaviour. Through the use of narrative and setting and the privileging of

memory A Church Romance presents different Victorian societal norms . Setting is

used by Hardy to depict Victorian notions of religious propriety and class divisions. In

lines one and two which states

she turned in the high pew,until her sight ;

swept the west gallery and caught its row
the use of the setting constructs the implicit class divisions within the Victorian society.

Positioning the female subject in the churches highest pew not only gives her a clear view

of her surroundings but also indicates the implicit class divisions within Victorian

society. The positioning of the female subject in the churches highest pew not only gives

her a clear view of her surroundings but also indicates that she was a member of high

society. Additionally setting serves as an indication of notions of religious propriety The

use of setting and narrative by Hardy highlights , how different societal conditions affect

the personas attitude and behaviour within society. Hardy utilizes the setting to highlight

Victorian religious piety where every aspect of Victorian religion is influenced by God.

Religion within the Victorian society is therefore depicted as that which influences and

sets the standard for all and as such is used as the justification and starting point for all


The positioning of the female as inferior or lesser level than her male counterpart can be

seen through Hardys use of narrative. In lines six to eight which notes

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one strenuous viols inspirer seemed to throw ,

A message from his string to her below, which said:
I claim thee as my own forthright.
Hardy not only transposes the dialogue from the human being to the instrument , but

also highlights the position of women as objects within the society who must be claimed

as an image of male conquest . Thus Hardy constructs a narrative on Victorian principles

through the investment of dialogue , setting and character within the sonnet. The sonnet

form is therefore used in this poem to encompass through memory the Victorian

sensibility and imagination, as through the investment of dialogue within the sonnet

form and the movement of scene the poet is able to exploit the fourteen lines of the

sonnet to entail a life history through a sequence of events. Additionally in this

encapsulation Hardy further suggests that the memory of the individual can save you

from the ordinary and can be defined by something which is simply radical.

In the sonnet Over the coffin Hardy again utilizes narrative and setting and the lives

of the common folk to highlight to highlight Victorian moral and cultural practices. In

this poem dialogue is utilized by the poet to highlight how societal notions of

propriety restrict and direct individual behaviour. When the speaker notes ,

I divorced that man because of you,

It seemed I must do it boundenly,

she directly expresses how the individual is of little significance when set against the

broader norms of society which dictates how one should behave. The use of narrative

and setting therefore turns the sonnet into a social dialogue. In the poems octave

setting is used to highlight the established patterns of behaviour which society dictates

and the male female divide, where the figure of the male is constructed in a superior

position .Hence in lines three and four where the speaker notes

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And the dead man , whose they both had been ,

seems listening aloof as to things past date

the males position of dominance and superiority within the society is clearly seen and

again the woman is represented as that which is to be conquered or possessed. Hence

with use of this line the poet not only concretizes this phenomenon within the society but

it is also used to define the female in relation to her male counterpart. Thus the

presence of the dead husband becomes the presence of self definition where the female

identity is defined not only by the society but by the male figure, who represents her in a

position of inferiority. This subjugation of the female body and identity to male

dominance is further seen in the last two lines of the sonnet where the women

acknowledge that they had lived under the rigid codes of behaviour which patriarchy

dictated. The sonnet therefore portrays the insignificance of individual human

experience in relation to society in general. Thus through social realism Hardy situates

the sonnet within the discourse of Victorian morality and as such helps to portray and

construct Empires cultural ideologies.

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Fragmented Voices: Subverting The Politics of Empire

With the end of the colonial era and an increase in native consciousness ideologies of

Empire have and still is been refuted in postcolonial discourse. This rewriting is largely

done in an attempt to counter colonialist conceptions by highlighting that there exists

alternative ways of looking at or depicting the other. As such via postcolonial writings

the native is allowed to access and to find a voice which had previously been silenced.

As post colonial critic Elleke Boehmer postulates, in the book The Empire Writes Back

;Migrant Metaphors. Where colonial writers began to represent themselves in literary

forms adopted from Europe , they effectively sidestepped the position of silent object

in colonialist representation.learning to borrow selectively and unsupervised from

Europe , those who had no culture took the initiative in interpretation(173). Thus

through the appropriation and assimilation of European art forms such as the sonnet,

writers such as Derek Walcotts and Claude McKay effectively spoke back to western

texts. In speaking to the Western texts and the historic moment of Empire which

they represent , these poets have sought to deconstruct Empires discourse by using

the specificity of a narrative , to not to only deconstruct but name a discourse beyond

the discourse of Empire.

In the sonnets Enslaved and Outcast by Claude McKay the sonnet becomes a way of

defining and portraying how the poets imagination understands the inheritance of

Empires culture. This is seen in the use of the sonnet from to challenge colonial

assumptions of race and class and to redefine the colonial self, history and creativity. In

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the sonnet Enslaved McKay highlights the politics of race and racial inferiority that

exists as apart of our colonial inheritance. In lines one and six of the sonnet which notes

Oh when I think of my long- suffering race .

Robbed in the ancient country of its birth

the violent racism that defines the black colonial existence is clearly detailed. The poet

further suggests that the church and religious complicity played a major role in the

dehumanization, disinheritance and dispossession of the black race. McKays sonnet

further reveals how brutality , dispossession ,oppression and theft is the legacy of Empire

where the Africans racial identity is revoked . Empire is thus seen as a place for the

enslavement and subsequent death of blackness. In this representation of the legacy of

Empire , McKay also deconstructs colonial racist assumptions which portrays the

black racial identity within the constructs of barbarism and brutality. The poet

deconstructs this colonialist assumption through role reversal where the colonizer is

put in the role of the brutal barbarian.

Marcellus Blount notes in the article Caged Birds: Race and Gender in The Sonnet that

for black poets the sonnet has served as a zone of liberation, mediation and self-

possession. These poets have turned to the sonnet as an alternative space for

performance , one that demonstrates the poets craft while calling into question the

marginality of black men and women in Euro-American discourse (Blount 228). In

McKays use of the sonnet form in Enslaved this is most aptly depicted as the poet is

able to reclaim his self through artistic creation. Working within and against the European

prescriptions McKay is able to subvert the legacy of voiceless-ness and history -less

-ness that European discourse has established as his inheritance. Hence in line five

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where the speaker notes And in the Black Land disinherited, the poet is able to claim a

history, voice and place for himself and the members of his race in the Black Land.

In the sonnet The Outcast McKay asserts an identity and reclaims a voice outside the

European prescriptions of blackness . In lines one to three McKay both reclaims a

history which has been denied and gives power to the voice that has been silenced.

The Outcast can therefore be seen as speaking to the collective black experience of

voiceless-ness and creative bondage. McKay therefore exploits the strictures of the

sonnet to express that which Empires culture seeks to curtail, thus when the speaker

postulates that

words felt , but never heard, my lips would frame;

My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs

he speaks to the reclamation of the reclamation of the African voice, culture and creative

impetus . Lines five and six which notes

I would go back to darkness and to peace ,

But the great Western World holds me in fee

acts as a commentary on the bondage which empires culture has imposed on the African

consciousness. This bondage is further depicted by the poet as an extension of the

bondage of white historical time, where the black man is

born far from (his) native clime,

Under the white mans, menace out of time.
Additionally the use of the term out of time by the poet can be seen as an indication

of difference in the world view of the African and European , where time for the African

is natural and a-historical rather than mechanical and historical. Out of Time could

also be used to refer to the African historical heritage and its longevity where, it exists

outside, before and beyond the boundaries of white historical time.

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Beth Palatnik, notes in the article, Consumption: Devouring The Harlem Dancer, that

McKay takes the body of the sonnet a privilege-soaked, white- identified form and

uses it to insert Africs son into Shakespeares mode of discourse(1 of 4).

Thus through the exploitation of the sonnet form the poet exposes his identity as a

colonial hybrid. This in turn entails a double consciousness in which the black identity

is shaped by an antagonistic dualism in which he is both repulsed and attracted to the

master culture, belonging in yet being an outcast of the master culture and the culture of

Africa. The poet is thus depicted as the colonial hybrid . It is this hybridity which

allows the poet to utilize the sonnet as a means of achieving authenticity by

challenging European discourses of authority through the infusion of a black

racialized voice within the sonnet. Hence the poet is able to both define himself

within and against the sonnet as a vehicle of empire as it provides the form which is

deconstructed to represent ideas of race.

The use of the Sonnet as a celebration of Empires Other

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In deconstructing the ideologies of Empire , postcolonial writers are often faced with a

challenge . This challenge ensues as these writers often find it problematic to write

within the language of the colonizer while claiming a space for their own. Thus as Renu

Juneja notes in Caribbean Transactions , West Indian Culture in Literature the colonized

subject Who identifies himself with Caliban but also acknowledges his descent from

Prospero must appropriate the English so that the same gift endowed with different

meanings may grow towards a future which is colonized by our acts in this moment , but

which must always remain open(Juneja 5). Within the works of writers such as Derek

Walcott this challenge has been met by using the Standard English and the creole

vernacular dialects to ground the sonnet within the diaspora. Additionally the sonnets

English form is adopted to celebrate the Caribbean space in which the landscape through

the artist becomes the detailer of history. This is most aptly detailed in the sonnets The

Harbour and ChapterVI of the sonnet sequence Tales of the Island. Walcott utilizes the

poem The Harbour as a metaphor for poetic expression. In The Harbour art becomes

an escape for Walcott. Thus in lines twelve to fourteen which note

Braving new water in an antique hoax;

And secure from thinking may climb safe to the liners,
Hearing small rumours of paddlers drowned near stars

Walcott asserts that we need to create something new and fresh by examining the

opportunities that exist within the Caribbean space; not looking back to a former world

but moving towards the new. Additionally in lines nine to eleven where the speaker notes

yet others who now watch my progress outward,

on a sea which is crueler than any word, of love,
may see in me the calm my passage make,

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the poet suggests that the written passage (the calm of my passage makes) or poetic

expression can be used to transcend the colonial legacy. However it also serves as a

cautionary note within the sonnet where as the sonnet further notes the colonial artist is

essentially braving new water in an antique hoax. Subsequently in writing within the

language and tradition of the masters culture the writers art must engage in more than

mere (mimickry) or exact replication but must also entail appropriation and

indigenization. Thus as Caribbean writers European art must either be adopted,

assimilated or abandoned.

For the poet art becomes the symbolic meaning by which a place is defined thus the rich

landscape provides metaphors and symbols to engender a multiplicity of meanings within

the poets vocation. The use of landscape by the poet thus symbolizes the interplay

between the imagination and the real; an intermingling of the figurative openness of

poetry to communicate a sense of place. In an interview with Edward Hirsch Walcott

states that I just felt that you had to find not magnificence, but the reality of the duty of

your immediate surroundings (Baer, 52) Walcott therefore creates an interaction with the

elemental landscape and the artist to deepen and enrich meanings and suggest themes.

In his recreation of the Caribbean space through art Walcott infuses his poem with the

tension which results from a consciousness of the conflict of life caught between love and

hatred, between the spiritual and the material, and between the terrible beauty of the

world and the callous indifference of nature. This tension further speaks to the tension

which defines the Caribbean existence.

In The Harbour Walcott depicts his mastery of the masters language and craft while

portraying a single moment within the Caribbean experience. Through his personification

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of nature Walcott expresses the reality of the Caribbean landscape outside the European

tropes of romanticism and exoticism, which saw the islands being depicted as a perfect

ideal; rather, nature and the Caribbean landscape is portrayed realistically where the sea is

bitter and sly and is crueler than any word. Here this depiction of nature not only

speaks to its treachery and callous indifference but also symbolically refers to the seas

treachery as the tool of empire. The sea therefore acts as a metaphorical representation of

the treachery of empire.

In Chapter VI of Tales of the Islands Walcott again asserts that the poet or the artist is

the recorder of history; looking on with deeper eyes his Caribbean existence is depicted

from a fresh perspective. Walcott begins the sonnet with the use of dialogue which at

once grounds the sonnet within the Islands. In lines and one and seven where the speaker

notes Poopa, da was a fete! I Mean it had and Each generation has its angst, but we

has none, he asserts that language carries with it a history . Here the transposed

European history and culture and its indigenization within the Caribbean is clearly

exposed through the use of narrative. The characters quotation of the English romantic

poet Shelly clearly highlights the West Indian mans position as a cultural hybrid who

must assimilate and adopt the different cultures within his historical background.

Language is furthered manipulated by the poet to celebrate the regional and cultural

norms of the society, through the use of the landscape to preserve the history of people

and place.

The space of the beach and the fete like the space of the sonnet is infused within different

aspects of the peoples culture. The Caribbean festive and creative spirit is revealed in

line three where the Pan from one of them band in Trinidad becomes a direct way in

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which the artistic genius existent within the Caribbean is highlighted by the poet . While

the penultimate line which speaks to two practioners of native art can seen as a

reference to the poets indigenization of the sonnet which is a decidedly English art.

Additionally this reference to native art by the poet can also refer to the African

retentions within the Caribbean. In line seven which notes while he drunk quoting

Shelley the image of drunkenness refers again to the Caribbean mans creativity where

drunkenness is a symbol for artistic intoxication in which the poet finds his voice and

breaks away from the traditions of Prospero which defines his existence.

In the book Abandoning Dead Metaphors , the Caribbean Phase of Derek Walcotts

Poetry Patricia Ismond notes that Walcotts effort in this collection is centered on two

related things :concentration on craft through the technical mastery of a range of

traditional forms; and the concern to adopt and appropriate these forms in the service of

his landscape (Ismond 27). This is clearly highlighted through Walcotts use of the

sonnet form which is a variation on the Spensarian adoption of this form. The sonnets

lyricism is captured through the poets use of rhyme; with the alternate rhyming pattern

of lines one and three which rhymes AA with the words had and Trinidad anchoring

the sonnets lyricism. Additionally this lyricism is appropriated by the poet through the

use of sound where the aural quality of the line brings out a distinctive Caribbean

linguistic pattern is revealed in the lilt that this rhyming pattern establishes.

End notes

For poets such as Shelly, poetry is an idealized art form and poets become the unacknowledged legislators of the world

while Plato in the Phaedrus criticizes for being removed from truth with no value except that of inciting the passions in

Though its origins can be traced back to as far as the songs of the Italian peasantry its position as an elitist art form has

been cemented due to its development from the original eight lines of the strambatto songs of the peasantry to the fourteen

lines for which it is now known within the court of Frederick II as ell as elevating the composition of the sonnet to

something of an intellectual sport..

Within empires discourse native voices were often muted or was represented largely on European convictions. The

conception of the native as the other who was not on par with or akin to the European was another dominant feature of

this empires discourse in which notions of civility, patriotism, religion, racial superiority and morality played a dominant


Works Cited
Baer William. Conversations With Derek Walcott. Mississippi . University of Mississippi

Press 1996.

Barnhart Clarence The New Century Handbook of English Literature

Blount Caged Birds: Race and Gender in The Sonne In Engendering Men,

ed. Joseph Boene & Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990

Boehmer Elleke The Empire Writes Back;Migrant Metaphors

Hynes Samuel. Thomas Hardy Selected Heritage. London Oxford University Press.

Ismond Patricia Abandoning Dead Metaphors , the Caribbean Phase of Derek Walcotts

Poetry .Jamaica University of The West Indies Press 2001

Juneja Renu Caribbean Transactions , West Indian Culture in Literature. London

Macmillan 1996

Palatnik Beth, Consumption: Devouring The Harlem Dancer,

Roberts Adam. The Oxford Authors, Alfred Tennyson. London, Oxford

University Press 2000.

Sherman Joan. Selected Poems Claude McKay. New York Dover inc 1996

Walcott Derek. Collected Poems 1948-19884. London, Faber and Faber 1992