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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

The Origins of Myth: On Derek Walcott’s “Europa”

for Abhijeet N., because he asked

Europa (from Windows on the Universe)
Derek Walcott

The full moon is so fierce that I can count the
coconuts’ cross-hatched shade on bungalows,
their white walls raging with insomnia.
The stars leak drop by drop on the tin plates
of the sea almonds, and the jeering clouds
are luminously rumpled as the sheets.
The surf, insatiably promiscuous,
groans through the walls; I feel my mind
whiten to moonlight, altering that form
which daylight unambiguously designed,
from a tree to a girl’s body bent in foam;
then, treading close, the black hump of a hill,
its nostrils softly snorting, nearing the
naked girl splashing her naked breasts with silver.
Both would have kept their proper distance still,
if the chaste moon hadn’t swiftly drawn the drapes
of a dark cloud, coupling their shapes.

She teases with those flashes, yes, but once
you yield to human horniness, you see
through all that moonshine what they really were,
those gods as seed-bulls, gods as rutting swans
an overheated farmhand’s literature.
Who ever saw her pale arms hook his horns,
her thighs clamped tight in their deep-plunging ride,
watched, in the hiss of the exhausted foam,
her white flesh constellate to phosphorous
as in salt darkness beast and woman come?
Nothing is there, just as it always was,
but the foam’s wedge to the horizon-light,
then, wire-thin, the studded armature,
like drops still quivering on his matted hide,
the hooves and horn-points anagrammed in stars.

Comment:

In the second stanza, the narrator confesses that after intense sexual experience, he – and by extension, his audience – can understand how myths truly came about. People (“overheated farmhand[s]“) had to watch nature and they let their imaginations get carried away. The intensity of sexuality reveals itself to be Nothing, and “constellate,” “wire-thin… armature,” “drops” and “horn-points” situate us in emptiness.

What has happened is that the second stanza, in emphasizing rationality (logos), has destroyed the myth (mythos, duh), and Nothing is the result. You can’t understand human desire by dismissing it as imaginary, for that is what it literally is; one has to engage the images. The poem ends with “anagrammed in stars,” using “anagram” as if it were a verb meaning “carved out” or “sketched.” “Anagram” means no such thing, of course. It is a transposition of letters. What it probably means is that we have to read the letters, the clues, another way, and prepare for the fact that there has been another meaning we have missed entirely the whole time.

Our new beginning: moon, stars, clouds, surf imply a rough descent of light upon the earth. The distance of the light does not matter, but the intensity does. Hence, the moon is first in this ordering. The ferocity of the moon’s light makes bungalow walls seem like a prison; cross-hatching is like looking through a thicket of lines. It is a prison in a way, as our narrator cannot sleep, trapped in a world forming around him. The light of the stars upon the “sea almonds” makes thin branches look like they’re tin plates, I’m guessing almost roof-like. The light is blearing, smearing, almost becoming dew droplets or an ocean.

But there is more than light becoming corporeal. It is also becoming human as it is covered/covers itself. The clouds “jeer,” the surf is “promiscuous” and “groans.” Perhaps this is an illustration of the notion, from Benardete’s interpretation of the Phaedo, that any account of body is mythological. We note that not just the bodily, natural phenomena described sensually, but the human mind itself (light) is generative in the poem. The copulation is here:

I feel my mind
whiten to moonlight, altering that form
which daylight unambiguously designed,

The narrator’s mind whitens – he uses that light to see – and what does he see? For a second, before a change, what daylight “unambiguously designed.” In another light, perhaps, these objects look normal, can be studied. There is no studying in this moment, though. Europa gave birth to three who rule in the Underworld. This is her domain, the darkness. Logic and form are being incorporated and given preeminence in the mythological understanding, and this is what the second stanza is missing.

What the second stanza gets correct is that the human mind is integral to this process. But that fact alone tells us nothing – again, why was he imagining this in the first place? Because he’s horny and moonlight doesn’t help? The vision is right in front of us:

from a tree to a girl’s body bent in foam;
then, treading close, the black hump of a hill,
its nostrils softly snorting, nearing the
naked girl splashing her naked breasts with silver.
Both would have kept their proper distance still,
if the chaste moon hadn’t swiftly drawn the drapes
of a dark cloud, coupling their shapes.

I’ll be the first to say I don’t get exactly why “from a tree” is there.  I think the point might be that the tree has been darkened out of his field of vision now, that it is impossible to analyze as he would in daylight. All eyes are on the copulation taking place in the surf, the copulation that is the speaker’s mind meeting the light.

The outlines of the water splashing create the girl, the bull. Water against itself, foam, light against itself creates the girl. Light against itself is implied by the moonlight turning into objects: “the stars leak drop by drop,” “silver” are key, but the fundamental ideas are the ferocity of the moon and the mind itself whitening.  Water against the backdrop of a landmass far greater than a tree, one that will be there in daylight, creates the bull.

Now it is critical to note is that the vision isn’t done yet. The speaker interrupts it to emphasize that he has passed a test: he has been horny, and seen farther. It is not clear he understands the significance of what has actually happened. He thinks he is getting more distant from the vision, even as he says:

Who ever saw her pale arms hook his horns,
her thighs clamped tight in their deep-plunging ride,
watched, in the hiss of the exhausted foam,
her white flesh constellate to phosphorous
as in salt darkness beast and woman come?

Our speaker more than likely means this as a rhetorical question, even as he is actually seeing this play out before him. The culmination of the vision: the naked girl and the bull look most real as they’re dissolving into each other and into the “salt darkness” from which they emerged.

We have our sights set on the interesting question: not that myth is Nothing, or that sexuality reduces to Nothingness, but why is it the moment we are most alive, most ourselves, also the moment we might as well be dead? We can say this is just a fleeting mythical vision, but that doesn’t do justice to the real logic of the poem. The speaker saw this, it arose from his feelings about the world around him, and he reported it. The speaker, in being too reductive (logical?), is missing the narrative of which he is actually a part.

The speaker’s regretful tone about eros, his own desire, should make us look at “seed-bulls” and “rutting swans” a bit closer. “Rutting” only refers to sexuality when we’re talking about mammals. In terms of swans, it would probably refer to the monotonous lines they form (cf. Yeats, “The Wild Swans at Coole”). “Seed-bulls” are similarly less sexual; bulls are on a farm for a reason. Our speaker is aware that he has been aroused, but I think he’s confused about the real source of eros. He’s thinking it’s him alone, to a degree.

But eros always takes two. One to desire, one to fulfill. And once the desire is fulfilled, both vanish. The myth, then, is at a distance from the ordinary precisely because it is ordinary. This is the real criss-crossing that’s occurring: if what constitutes the erotic is everyday, existing and not dissolving in phosphorous, how do we describe that? Do we say all of life is longing? Maybe, but that’s a weak answer, since we get what we want on some scale every day.

Our logical accounting of things – that we can do science, that we can categorize our memories and experiences – stands apart from myth, but doesn’t stand apart from the eros central to myth. In other words, this was a revelation every reasonable person will have. Our speaker ends ambiguously:

Nothing is there, just as it always was,
but the foam’s wedge to the horizon-light,
then, wire-thin, the studded armature,
like drops still quivering on his matted hide,
the hooves and horn-points anagrammed in stars.

The problem I’m citing with our speaker is the “Nothing is there, just as it always was” – given that the character of his experiences are about the limits of human reason, this is nihilism. He’s asserting there is no eternal ground even worth asking about, to a degree; I suspect he’s making the lazy assertion that we are sexual because of death’s finality, which this pervades everything. Literally, that’s true. But his final image leads us to the critical tension. The light has receded in a sense, it isn’t illuminating so as to create a girl and the beast. What are left are points, frameworks, that create a picture of Zeus as the bull, a picture composed of elements of earth and heaven. We logically wonder about the girl, whether she has been destroyed, and the answer is probably not: Zeus is only revealed in this fuller form because of the consummation.  The problem with logic alone is that the light we see with is not always our possession.

4 Comments

  1. Very nice love it :D

  2. Not a student of poetry but thoroughly enjoyed reading the analysis. Food for thought

  3. Just thought I’d add something that hit me in studying the poem:

    You mentioned you don’t understand the inclusion of the words “from a tree”. I personally saw the tree as the literal figure he can see outside of his window which he has transformed through his night-time imagination into Europe. ( I got this from the line “from a tree to a girl’s body bent in foam” as if he sees the tree as a bathing Europa).
    This is then matched by the creation of Zeus as a Bull out of the “black hump of a hill” (of which I’m sure the word hump is being used as a pun).

  4. i have a completely different take on this remarkable piece of art

    i see his comparisons of his own passion and sexuality to that of earth’s sexuality

    in other words the tree compared to the body of the girl

    the surf making love to her and the shore, etc, etc.

    all of nature lusts………..it is all that ‘god’ wants in order to continue creation

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