There are times when I think I have done an analysis on a poem and when I check the website, I find I am wrong. This poem is one of those moments and I know why, for this is, I think, another where I have taught it, I think in a section of poems from other cultures. Now if I am correct in my assumption, then as students, you need to be careful in how you analyse this one. I know in previous posts I have said that you should read up on the poet and in this instance, I urge you now to do so, before you read on. It will illuminate your thinking.
Here is the poem…
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia in the West Indies, or as Cricketers know it, the Windies. His full name and title is Sir Derek Alton Walcott and he was born in 1930. He is a poet and playwright, a Professor at Essex University teaching Poetry and is of African and European descent. That mixture of ethnic diversity will play into his works in one way or another.
Here, we see a poem about love, but can we call it a ‘love poem?’
“Time will come” he says, “when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other’s welcome and say, sit here. Eat.” It is a strange opening for a poem but one that is arresting as well, making the poet think about who is speaking. Is it the poet himself or is this addressed more widely at all the readership? There is a sense here of the poet saying that there will come a time when you have to look at yourself in the mirror and love yourself, because if you fail to do that, then how can you hope to love others out there in the world?
He continues by adding that one day “you will love again the stranger who was your self.” This is a clear reference to the reader, not necessarily the poet himself so this is indeed a polemic, a learning tool for those whi cannot love. Love first, he is saying, before you can love others, for without love we are nothing. At that time, he says, you will be able to “give wine” and give “bread.” You will be able to “give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life.” There is a sense in us all that we are narcissistic, or in other words, we love to preen ourselves, to be the best, to look the best, but he is saying that this can cause issues with loving others if it is taken too far to the extreme. By loving only self means that “you ignored” others and that is a pity.
For in all of this, the one “who knows you by heart” is the one who knows, or should do, how to give and receive love. But for most of us, this is an issue we need to face, for we feel we cannot trust someone because we have been hurt or let down in the past. A love gone bad can cause a hatred in a person. I know that for ten years, from sixteen to twenty six, I went through something similar because of something terrible happening when I was sixteen. Could I love others? No, because I could not love myself. I was at that point in life where a tipping point came when I met the woman who I have now been married to for over thirty years and whom I love and adore. Then, I would not be able to make changes. When this new woman began to love me and I began to trust her, then I was able to “take down the love letters from the bookshelf,” or in my words, begin to love and trust again.
This is what this poem is so good at showing, that we need to see past ourselves, past the pain and into somewhere where there is the chance to love. Forget all the old “photographs, the desperate notes,” says the poet, when these times are upon you. Do not listen to the hate in the mid, the distrust in the heart, for that will guide you away from love. Instead, what we are to do is “peel [our] own image from the mirror,” taking the stress away and simply “sit” and as we do so, we then can begin to “feast on [our] life.” Then, when we are open again to the chances of love, we can find the kind of love that lasts, the kind of expression that shows itself in love and experience the kind of relationships that are grounded in love.
In essence, there is a matter of equilibrium to love and loving, according to Walcott. Imagine, if you will, a see saw, Normally there is a child on one end and a child on the other. If one is ten years old and the other five, then one end will be up all the time due to weight and age. If the two children are twins, of the same age and family, of the same weight, then providing the middle is balanced at a good fulcrum [triangle] both shall be level with each other. It is the same with love, according to this poem because if we have an equal propensity to love and our distrust is not outweighed by our ability to love, then we shall do well in the love and relationship stakes. If we are not like this and cannot trust, then it stands to reason that we will suffer until we get something sorted out.
Walcott’s poem is therefore, a warning to us all to do the best, be the best and love the best, in the best way we can. With his time in Britain, can we label this with all the other British poems and poets? Or is his belief about love and relationships one that has come from his African and European heritage? The answer to that will depend on your future research.
Over to you, to study this man and his poetry more.