I am always enchanted by poems based on paintings that I love. And my favorite painting of the Eighteenth Century is Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera,” a promise of love in the offing, but no delivery for certain. Cythera, or Kythira, is an island off the Peloponnese. The following poem was written by another islander, from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, namely Derek Walcott. It is poem XX in the sequence of his collection Midsummer and called simply “Watteau”:
The amber spray of trees feather-brushed with the dusk, the ruined cavity of some spectral château, the groin of a leering satyr eaten with ivy. In the distance, the grain of some unreapable, alchemical harvest, the hollow at the heart of all embarkations. Nothing stays green in that prodigious urging towards twilight; in all of his journeys the pilgrims are in fever from the tremulous strokes of malaria’s laureate. So where is Cythera? It, too, is far and feverish, it dilates on the horizon of his near-delirium, near and then further, it can break like the spidery rigging of his ribboned barquentines, it is as much nowhere as these broad-leafed islands, it is the disease of elephantine vegetation in Baudelaire, the tropic bug in the Paris fog. For him, it is the mirror of what it is. Paradise is life repeated spectrally, an empty chair echoing the emptiness.