The Relationship of Reality and Cliché: Imagery in "A London Afternoon"

Our view of the world is but a series of images, and we control which ones we see and how we see them. In "A London Afternoon," Derek Walcott utilizes poetic imagery of  both cliché and reality to suggest that we create false memories that cause us to have only superficial interactions with the world and prevent us from discovering the truth; to truly see, we must clear our vision of preconceived images.

 The thought of England almost always conjures images of "elaborate breakfasts," a bar with a "glum, punctual waiter," the "ornate lettering" on quaint shop fronts, and of course, afternoon tea (Walcott, lines 3, 5, 11, 12). These are Walcott's "consoling clichés"—superficial images that have come to represent the reality of London (7). Romantic depictions of nature with "the creak of a country cart" in Constable's painting and the "scent and symmetry" of Wyatt and Surrey's poetry portray specific elements of historic England that now seem quintessential, but they are not England as it is today or even necessarily as it was then (25, 29). Nearly two centuries ago, the Romantics were already painting and writing with nostalgia for a different England, yet it is still to their "consoling clichés" that we try to return (7). For them and us, these idealized images are mere "props" used to set the superficial scene of England, while behind the curtain the "real" England waits, unseen (10).

In Walcott's mind is the "memory / of a skylark's unheard song," but how is it possible to have a memory of an "unheard song" (27, 28)? He has used a description of such a song to create a false memory. He did not see the "Spring grass and roiling clouds" that "dapple a county / with lines like a rutted road" nor hear "the creak of a country cart," but nonetheless has "memories" of them from his experiences with the arts that attempted to portray them (26, 27, 29). Walcott projects these false memories, cultivated from art, history, and personal interpretation, onto reality, where they "lie like / barred sunlight on the lawn," and prevent him from seeing the world as it really is (34-35). They "cage / the strutting dove" of reality and Walcott fails to gain anything from reality but what he expected (36). Reality is superficially "welcomed, but not absorbed" because his mind is full of preconceptions (8).

The knight of George Peel's A Farewell to Arms, "though from court to cottage he depart," exemplifies Walcott's imagined England—a knight who, now too old for the battlefield or court, is happy to spend the rest of his days in a cottage praying for the queen to whom he is eternally devoted (32). However, the wistful image is permeated by "the scent of petrol," the epitome of modern mundanity (34). Like the image of the knight, Walcott's London is crisscrossed with clichés, but not so thickly as to completely obscure reality; as the scent of petrol interrupts the medieval reverie, so does "the stain that spreads invisibly from the heart, / like the red of Empire in a schoolroom's map" interrupt Walcott's idealized vision of England (16-17). This imagery follows his near "recognition of home" in the city, and intimates the issue of racism and colonialism that is entrenched in the shared history of England and his home (9). It is only after this unpleasant awakening that Walcott steps out of the "consoling clichés" and begins to truly see London as it is (7).

Now that he recognizes the disparity between the two images, Walcott contrasts the idealized images with his observations of reality; the aged streets are actually quite narrow, "begrimed with age/and greasy with tradition" (18-19). The quaint shops have "knobbly names" and are really nothing more than pizza joints, betting shops and black garages (19, 20). Indeed, the reality of London has very little to do with the pastoral haven of "that England on each page / of my fifth-form anthology" (22-23).  By letting go of his preconceptions, Walcott is able to actually engage with reality; instead of projecting his own images onto it, he now sees himself reflected in reality (36).

Walcott's use of poetic imagery illuminates the imagery of reality and cliché that we experience every day. In order to truly engage with the world, we must abandon the false memories that we have created and see reality as it is; then, we too will see ourselves reflected in the world instead of the world in ourselves.