Biography of Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott was born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia on January 23, 1930. He is an acclaimed author of poetry, as well as a playwright and painter. His work is known for tackling themes of colonialism and the Western canon, as well as for its delicate use of language and engagement with beauty.

Walcott’s ancestry is English, Dutch, and African, a mixed origin which his poetry often discusses. He was raised by a single mother, and was brought up as a Methodist despite the majority Catholic population of St. Lucia. He attended school at St. Mary’s College in Saint Lucia, and then the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He published his first poem at the age of 14. His early work was already subversive, borrowing from the religious poetry of Milton in a manner some deemed blasphemous. As a young man, he worked as a teacher and journalist in the Caribbean, and also became involved in the theater community. His first play was produced on St. Lucia when he was 20, and in 1959 he founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop.

Walcott’s first major collection of poetry, In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, was released in 1962 to international acclaim. The book largely centered on celebrations of the natural beauty of the Caribbean. His next books continued this theme, while increasingly centering Walcott’s difficulty in finding a personal identity, caught as he was between European and Black folk culture. In 1971, his play Dream on Monkey Mountain was produced on NBC-TV, and he remained involved with theater as a professor at Boston University, where he founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 1981.

Arguably, Walcott’s greatest work is Omeros, a retelling of the Odyssey as a Caribbean folk legend. Published in 1990, the book merged Walcott’s investments in the western canon and black folk history. Considered a triumph of modern epic, it was what finally won Walcott the Noble Prize for Literature in 1992.

While working as a guest professor at Harvard, Walcott was credibly accused of sexual harassment by a student. He received a formal reprimand from the University, yet continued teaching. Ten years later, another student at Boston University reported that Walcott had threatened not to produce her play unless she slept with him. Again, the University retained Walcott as a faculty member. In 2009, Walcott removed himself from consideration for an honorary professorship at Oxford after his history of sexual harassment came to light.

Walcott continued writing into the 2000s. His collection Tiepolo’s Hound is notable for its inclusion of the author’s watercolors. Walcott died in 2017, at the age of 87. He was living on St. Lucia with his partner Sigrid Nama.

Study Guides on Works by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott published his collection Midsummer in 1984. The collection is a sequence consisting of 54 poems, one for each year of his life at the time of publication. The title references the narrative conceit of the novel: a poetic examination...

In 1978, Derek Walcott wrote Pantomime within two days, after the ideas for the play had been fermenting for some time. The themes and elements of the play are closely linked with his biography. Born in St Lucia in 1930, he grew up between two...

Ti-Jean and His Brothers is a 1958 play by the Caribbean writer Derek Walcott. It tells the story of three brothers, Gros Jean, Mi Jean, and Ti-Jean, all of whom attempt to outwit the Devil. Its repetitive structure, in which each brother attempts...