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Derek Walcott

The Schooner Flight

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide


Derek Walcott published “The Schooner Flight” in his 1979 collection The Star-Apple Kingdom. Walcott, perhaps the most famous Caribbean writer of the 20th century, wrote this long, semi-epic persona poem after he was already established as an important poet. The poem explores the cultural and historical tensions of the Caribbean islands of Walcott’s childhood through the story of its central character, Shabine the smuggler and sailor.

Content Warning: This study guide quotes and obscures the poet’s use of the n-word. Additionally, the source material features offensive terms which are replicated in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material.

Poet Biography

Derek Walcott was born in 1930 to a schoolteacher and lover of the arts mother and a painter father in Saint Lucia. Derek Walcott had a twin brother, Roderick Walcott, who would also go on to find literary success. Walcott grew up in the Caribbean island Saint Lucia’s capital city of Castries, where he trained as a painter and studied to be a writer. Walcott published his first poem in a local newspaper at the age of 14 and paid to have his first book of poems published at 19, which he sold on street corners.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in Jamaica, Walcott began his writing career as a critic, teacher, and journalist in Trinidad in the 1950s. His book In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960 (1962) found international success and paved the way for his storied literary career. Walcott also found success as a playwright and began teaching literature and writing at Boston University in 1981. While there, he befriended Joseph Brodsky and Seamus Heaney, other poets who hailed from outside the US and had come to teach in Boston.

Walcott’s long epic poem Omeros (1990) cemented his reputation as not simply a good poet but a canonically great one. After its publication, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the second Caribbean recipient. Before Walcott died in 2017, he continued to publish plays and poetry and receive prestigious awards and prestigious teaching positions.

Poem Text

Walcott, Derek. “The Schooner Flight.” 1970. All Poetry.


Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight” is a long, narrative poem told in 11 sections. The text is a persona poem—a poem spoken from the perspective of a persona whom the poet creates—with its central character a racially diverse Caribbean sailor and smuggler named Shabine, who very loosely figures as a stand-in for the poet.

Like many epic poems, the text begins in media res, or in the middle of the action. The first section details Shabine surreptitiously leaving his wife, Maria Concepcion, in the middle of an “idle August” (Line 1) night. Shabine “lov[es] these islands” (Line 28) that are his home even as their “corruption […] start[s] to poison [his] soul” (Lines 29, 30). Spurred by the injustice and oppression he faces, Shabine abandons his wife and children to sail on the schooner named Flight, promising the reader at the first section’s conclusion to “tell [us] how this business begin” (Line 77).

The poem’s second section returns to the beginning, with Shabine working as an illegal smuggler for premium goods for a “big government man” (Line 78). However, the balance of power soon shifts, and the law is no longer on Shabine’s side. Moreover, “[Shabine is] fighting with Maria Concepcion” (Line 84), finding both his work and his family in a state of unrest. In an ambiguous passage, the sailor hears the voice of God telling him that if he leaves his wife, “I shall give you the morning star” (Line 143). In the third section, Shabine details his specific cultural context and the liminal space to which it relegates him. As he loses faith “in the revolution” (Line 170), he also “los[es] faith in the love of [his] woman” (Line 171).

The poem’s fourth section is brief and returns to the “present” action of Shabine aboard the Flight, now passing the Trinidadian coastal village of Blanchisseuse at dusk. In the fifth section, dawn has arrived and in its “silver haze” (Line 204) of “fog” (Line 205), Shabine sees ghost ships out of history, including slave ships, crewed by phantoms. The sixth section continues the Flight’s journey, now passing “the low hills of Barbados” (Line 233) in the light of day. This section focuses on the cultural and linguistic tension between the native name for casuarinas trees and their colonial comparison to “cypresses” (Line 256).

While Shabine refers to poetry earlier in the poem, the eighth section of the text highlights the importance of poetry to the character. While on the Flight, the ship’s cook “snatch[es]” (Line 2787) from Shabine the book that he “was using to write / [his] poetry” (Lines 277-278). Shabine cuts the cook with his knife and takes back his poems. The following section still emphasizes Shabine’s poetry, and this time the protagonist vows to use it against his oppressors. During this ninth section, Shabine also reflects on the injustice inherent to a Western conception of progress and dreams a nightmare that leaves him longing for his wife’s Book of Dreams.

In the final two sections of this semi-epic, the Flight is beset by a terrible storm that causes Shabine to think about God and mortality. Once the storm has lifted, Shabine sees a vision of Maria marrying the sea and finds himself at peace, concluding the poem by lyricizing about the islands, the ocean, poetry, and love.