Online Poems

for Craig White's Literature Courses


God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

(parts 1 & 2)

by Derek Walcott


Derek Walcott, b. 1930

Discussion questions:

1. Engage this poem in dialogue with Kipling's "White Man's Burden." How may the later poem respond to the earlier type of poem? What elements do they share? What has changed?

2. What symbolic values familiar to colonialism or imperialism have been inverted? How have the settings been inverted or reversed?

3. How does an American audience respond to the present poems' range of reference? How is this range "postcolonial?" (associated term: cosmopolitan)

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Splitting from Jack Delaney’s, Sheridan Square*,      [*neighborhood in Greenwich Village, NYC]
that winter night, stewed, seasoned in Bourbon,
my body kindled by the whistling air
snowing the Village that Christ was reborn,
I lurched like any lush by his own glow                       5
across towards Sixth, and froze before the tracks
of footprints bleeding on the virgin snow.     [allusion to Washington's army leaving bloody footprints at Valley Forge, 1777]
I tracked them where they led across the street
to the bright side, entering the wax-
sealed smell of neon, human heat,                            10
some all-night diner with its wise-guy cook
his stub thumb in my bowl of stew and one
acknowledging all that, white-dark outside,
was possible: some beast prowling the block,      [allusion to Yeats's "Second Coming," lines 21-22]
something fur-clotted, running wild                            15
beyond the boundary of will. Outside,
more snow had fallen. My heart charred.
I longed for darkness, evil that was warm.
Walking, I’d stop and turn. What had I heard,
wheezing behind my heel with whitening breath?      20
Nothing. Sixth Avenue yawned wet and wide.
The night was white. There was nothing to hide.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Part II

Every street corner is Christmas Eve
in downtown Newark. The magi walk—                         [Newark = largest city in New Jersey; magi = "3 Wise Men" visiting Christ's Nativity]
It is Anti-American to make such connections

in black overcoats hugging a fifth
of mentholated spirits, and hookers hook                    5
nothing from the dark cribs of doorways.
A crazy king breaks a bottle in praise
of Welfare, “I’ll kill the mother-fucker”
and for black blocks without work
the sky is full of crystal splinters.                                 10

A bus breaks out of the mirage of water;
a hippo in wet streetlights, and grinds on.
in smoke, every shadow seems to stagger
under the fiery acids of neon
wavering like a piss, some miss-                        15
ing, extinguished, except for two white
nurses, their vocation made whiter
in darkness. It’s two days from elections.

Johannesburg is full of starlit shebeens.              [Johannesburg = capital of South Africa; shebeen = South African term for pub, bar]
It is Anti-American to make such connections.             20
Think of Newark as Christmas Eve,
when all men are your brothers, even
these, bring peace to us in parcels,
let there be no more broken bottles in heaven
over Newark, let it not shine like spit,                           25
on a doorstep, think of the evergreen
apex with the gold star over it
on the day-glo bumper-sticker a passing car sells.

Daughter of Your Own Son, Mother and Virgin,
great is the sparkle of the high-priced firmament           30
in acid puddles, the gold star in store-windows,
and the yellow star on the night’s moth-eaten sleeve
like the black coat He wore through blade-thin elbows
out of the ghetto into the cattle-train
from Warsaw; nowhere is His coming more immanent      35
than downtown Newark where three lights believe
the starlit cradle and the evergreen carols
to the sparrow-child, a black coat-flapping urchin
followed by a white star as a police-car patrols.