19 pages 38 minutes read

Derek Walcott

The Flock

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Flock” was written by the Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott and included in his book The Castaway and Other Poems, published in 1965. In “The Flock” as mallards and blue-teal are heading south for the winter, a knight begins an emotional and intellectual journey as the birds countervail his progress. The poem deals with themes of loneliness, isolation, and the power of the mind to create a world independent from society. It is likely that Walcott wrote the poem while teaching in Boston and wishing to go home to the Caribbean where he was born.

Readers and scholars often discuss Walcott’s oeuvre through a post-colonial lens. In “The Flock,” shifting cultural influences caused by the colonization of the Caribbean contribute to the speaker’s loneliness and his need to reconstruct an identity independent of history and its influences.

Some critics of Walcott have lamented that he did not pioneer a more distinctly Caribbean style of writing, but instead built on the techniques of the Europeans who colonized his home. Although Walcott imitates techniques of the European canon, he uses those techniques to write about the beauty of the Caribbean. His plays often make use of stories from the indigenous and non-European inhabitants of the islands. His masterpiece Omeros re-envisions Homer’s Odyssey by following the life of a Caribbean fisherman—a new interpretation of the wanderer and trickster Odysseus.

Poet Biography

Derek Walcott, a descendant of both European and Caribbean grandparents, was born in Saint Lucia in 1930. His father was a painter who died when Walcott was only a year old. His mother, a laundress and seamstress, encouraged his lifelong love of English literature by reciting English poetry to him and his siblings.

Derek Walcott began his writing career when Saint Lucia was going through an extended fight for its independence after four centuries of being controlled by the English and the French who imported enslaved people from Africa to work the fields. Although slavery ended in the 1800’s, many of the descendants of the enslaved and Native Caribbeans continued to live in poverty.

Walcott was enchanted by the topography of his island home and wrote poems about its beauty. When he was 19 years old, he borrowed $200 from his mother to publish his first book, which he sold on street corners. Walcott was also an accomplished dramatist. In 1958 he went to New York to study playwriting, and over the course of his life published 30 plays in addition to nearly two dozen collections of poetry. From the late 1950s forward, Walcott taught at Boston University and divided his time between the United States and Trinidad. In 1992 Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died on March 17, 2017.

Poem Text

Walcott, Derek. “The Flock.” The Castaway and Other Poems. Jonathan Cape. 1965.


The poem begins with an image of blue-wing teals and mallards—two kinds of ducks flying from the reeds during winter. The speaker makes these birds a metaphor, calling them “arrows of yearning” (Line 4) that want to go south to “our different sky” (Line 4). They are migrating because of “A season’s revolution” (Line 5) which makes the ducks want to fly towards “our tropic light” (Line 6). The speaker compares his wandering thoughts to the ducks: He woke to “images migrating from the mind” (Line 8). He imagines himself as “a sepulchral knight” (Line 9)—a gloomy warrior from the tomb—who rides through a “Skeletal forest” (Line 9) to “a black tarn” (Line 10), or a small mountain lake, during the winter, which he calls the “funeral of the year” (Line 12).

As the knight’s horse moves, its hooves are “cannonading snow” (Line 11)—tossing it up and around with each step. Despite this seemingly aggressive image, the knight’s progress is slow, like an ant crawling up the “forehead of an alp” (Line 13), or a high mountain. His only undertakes his journey because of his will of “iron contradiction” (Line 14); unlike the ducks, which fly with the wind, the knight is progressing against the “gusts” (Line 15). Despite this gale, the knight has the “divination” (Line 17) that spring is coming. The speaker compares himself to this knight: The black letters he makes on the page are like the knight’s tracks in the snow. The speaker’s words are like birds crossing the sky on their way south, and he does not try to control them.

In the second stanza the speaker meditates on the “world” (Line 24). It spins in a “dark / Inflexible direction” (Lines 23-24) as on its surface, people and nations shift, cultures and languages move through “centuries” (Line 25) as people hold on to their . Though human beings dream of “images of flight” (Line 28), their negative qualities—“prepossession” (Line 27), or prejudice, and “condemnation” (Line 29) live on, as do the “sun’s exultant larks” (Line 30)—word choice that plays on the dual meaning of the word “lark,” which can either be a small songbird or a silly escapade.

Stanza three begins with an image of “The dark, impartial Arctic” (Line 31) which has frozen mastodons, petrifying these “giant minds in marble attitudes” (Line 33). This forbidding landscape “revolves with tireless, determined grace / upon an iron axle” (Lines 34-35), relying on the same metal that keeps the knight traversing the mountain. The Arctic is also propelled by a kind of iron will, unyielding in spite of the fact that “seals / howl with inhuman cries” (Lines 35-36). The speaker now uses a metaphor that returns us to the earlier comparison between his words and the wild birds. Just as the Arctic is pitiless to the animals that inhabit it, freezing their minds into uselessness, so too does the speaker lament the “pages of torn birds” (Line 37) of his writing that fall on the deaf ears of “whitening tundras” (Line 38).

In stanza four, the speaker again equates his thoughts with the indefatigable knight, wishing that the speaker’s mind hold to the knight’s “fixity” (Line 40) until “its annihilation” (Line 39). If it can come through this difficult winter to “that equinox,” (Line 41), or the point when the seasons begin to shift away from winter towards spring, his mind will see the returning bird-words and “greet the black wings […] as a blessing” (Line 43). These future birds will be the same ones that the speaker saw that morning at sunrise, when he began composing the poem by the “wintry flare of dawn” (Line 46), letting his bird-words fly “by instinct to their secret places” (Line 47), both because they needed to and because he needed a “sense of season” (Line 48).