Forest of Europe

Derek Walcott

‘Forest of Europe’ dissects the burden writers have, and their duty to the public to write the truth.


Derek Walcott

Nationality: Saint Lucian

Derek Walcott was a Saint Lucian poet.

His most important work is the epic poem ‘Omeros.'

Key Poem Information

Central Message: The burdened life of poets who spoke the truth and paid the price

Speaker: Derek Walcott

Emotions Evoked: Bravery, Empathy, Pride

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Forest of Europe' by Derek Walcott explains the anguish and suffering of poets through a beautifully executed extended metaphor.

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Forest of Europe‘ by Derek Walcott is a poem about the anguish of exiled writers, who must persevere above their own countries’ rules to tell the public the truth at the cost of their own freedom. The poem includes allusions to several different writers that readers may not have heard of before.


‘Forest of Europe’ by Derek Walcott suggests that the duty of the poet is to tell the truth even when facing punishment.

In ‘Forest of Europe,’ Derek Walcott explains the duty that poets and writers have to the public, which is to provide writings that show them the truth.

The poem identifies the main issues with being an exiled poet, how the public views them, and the dangers. The poem also discusses literature within a large extended metaphor and its complex nature with itself.

Structure and Form

This poem can be seen as an elegy, as it puts Mandelstam on a pedestal, the poem being a tribute to him and his career. As an elegy, the poem is written in regular meter. Sixteen stanzas are written, five-line stanzas in a regular metrical pattern.

Again, the use of iambic pentameter is seen, with five feet of unstressed-stressed syllables per line. The poem is almost conversational because the meter closely follows natural speech.

Literary Devices

There are many literary devices used throughout the poem ‘Forest of Europe,’ below are a few of the most important ones.

  • Extended metaphor – the forest in ‘Forest of Europe’ and the writings of exiled poets carry throughout the poem. The metaphor gets both specific and vague, relating large parts of nature, like a blizzard, but also small details, such as leaves, to the idea of writing poetry. 
  • Repetition – “The rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva.” is a line used multiple times in the poem, and therefore is a line that stuck with Walcott. The line is from Mandelstam’s works, and the line’s alliteration with multiple “r” and “n” sounds makes the line flow exceptionally well. 
  • Symbolism – there are many uses of symbolism in this poem, but many also fall into the extended metaphor. One that does not is the symbolism of light in the phrase ‘the phrase from Mandelstam circles with light,’ which details a halo around Mandelstam, showing his soul is light even though later it is mentioned the heavy burdens he carries. 

Detailed Analysis

Stanza one

The last leaves fell like notes from a piano


ruled on these scattered manuscripts of snow.

This first stanza of ‘Forest of Europe‘ uses a metaphor to compare an orchestra to a forest. First, the speaker uses mentions of piano notes, drifting to a close as the last leaves fall to the ground. Then, the now empty forest seems to be like an echoing of sound, and the snow is portrayed as music sheets and manuscripts that had been scattered.

This metaphor uses the intensity of the music to show the season’s change. It also provides a base for the speaker, who defines the forest as a specific type of music and aftermath to the reader, portraying a particular image.

Another important note is that Derek Walcott is having his friend read this poem aloud. His friend’s name is Joseph, and while not mentioned till the end of the poem, it’s important to note that Joseph is reading the words, but everything is from Walcott’s perspective as they sit in their cabin in Oklahoma.

Stanza Two

The last leaves fell like notes from a piano
and left their ovals echoing in the ear;
with gawky music stands, the winter forest
looks like an empty orchestra, its lines
ruled on these scattered manuscripts of snow.

In the second stanza of ‘Forest of Europe,’ the speaker sticks with the music metaphor but shows the forest at a more physical and personal level. First, the speaker provides more images, but the poem quickly changes focus. Mandelstam was an exiled poet from Russia and is known as one of the most famous Russian poets. The speaker recites his words, and they float away like the smoke from a cigarette.

At this part of the poem, it might seem strange to have mentioned another poet, but this is simply because the first stanza sets up the tone and mood, not the story. The actual concept the author is getting across in this poem is that of the anguish of exiled poets.

Stanza Three

‘The rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva.’


in a brown room, in barren Oklahoma.

‘The rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva’ is a Mandelstam poem that continues the focus on this exiled poet. The verse then states that speaking the poem sounds rough in your voice and is loud if you walk, something that is hard to say but essential to push through and say it. He defines this concept as the trait of exiled poets.

Stanza Four

There is a Gulag Archipelago


sun-cracked and stubbled with unshaven snow.

The “Gulag Archipelago” is not a poem but a literary investigation written in non-fiction in three volumes over ten years. It is not a poem but a piece of work written by a known Russian dissident. The poem then shows where this piece is in the forest, under the ice, in the salt mineral spring. The notation implies that works like this keep the forest alive even in winter when the world looks barren.

Then the poem describes through the forest what type of man would write such a thing; he says it’s hard and open of face, meaning that the writer would need to be stubborn and unmoving in their beliefs but also willing to share them with others openly.

The poem says they would be sun-cracked, perhaps from the journeying, as no one would take a poet or writer who has been exiled; they traveled often. Stumbled, meaning the writer did not have a place to stay for a while, unable to shave his own face.

It is interesting to note that snow is used for the beard, as snow earlier was seen as manuscript pages and sheet music. This could mean the writer cannot shave away or distance themselves from the work they have created.

Stanza Five

Growing in whispers from the Writers’ Congress,


sight of the single human through the cause.

The stanza takes a turn, still holding firm to the main topic of the anguish of exiled poets and writers, but it now uses a moment in history to reflect on. The moment is about a Choctaw (a Native American group currently located in Alabama) who has died in a blizzard, and the people surrounding the corpse, are similarly unbothered.

This stanza has a lot of meaning; for one, the blizzard is made of treaties and white paper, representing how Europeans unfairly treated the Native Americans and invaded their home. It then mentions that because of all the snowfall (the treaties/technicalities), they lost sight of humanity, not seeing a human through the storm anymore.

Stanza Six

So every spring these branches load their shelves,


lasts like this oak with a few brazen leaves.

Stanza six of ‘Forest of Europe‘ brings the main topic back into focus again, explaining to the reader that spring will come again, and with spring comes new leaves that will also fall to the ground the be buried by snow, except for a few brazen leaves.

This shows that new writers and stories will happen every year and be mixed into the world of literature, most forgotten, some holding on for dear life past their expiration date.

Stanza Seven

As the train passed the forest’s tortured icons,


whose freezing consonants turned into stone.

A train passes by the forest from nearby; a train’s general mechanics and sounds are tied to the images of the forest. The train cries and screams as the train reads aloud what the forest offers. Those words and sounds turn heavy and cannot be unread.

The train represents the general public in this stanza; they are passing by, reading the literature, and leaving with an impression of their own that will remain intact.

Stanza Eight

He saw the poetry in forlorn stations


so desolate it mocked destinations.

The speaker tells us what else the train has witnessed along all the stations and relates writing to this forest and nature in general. The speaker says the train has seen poetry in other areas, such as open fields and deserted stations, where they sounded different than they did bury in the snow.

This perhaps represents the role of the repressed exiles, being forced to undergo snowfall when others are in prairies, with no effort needed to escape the snow.

Stanza Nine

Who is that dark child on the parapets


then, black on gold, the Hudson’s silhouettes?

The stanza switches images, focusing on a child standing on a balcony overlooking Europe’s streams. First, it mentions that the country’s rulers are stamped with power, but the poets have none. Next, it says two rivers are rustling, and then the Hudson River’s shadow.

The river in this stanza is the melted snow, meaning the manuscripts of exiled authors are flowing away from the country, but still, the young see them and watch them. Finally, three rivers are mentioned, the last being in America. This could be because many exiled poets from other countries congregated in the States after its founding.

Stanza Ten

From frozen Neva to the Hudson pours,


citizens of a language that is now yours,

This stanza confirms what has been hinted at in the previous stanza. The exiled poets now converge in America, where many other forms of people converge to find a new life for themselves. America is shown not to be perfect, as many languages mix and not all the speaker knows, but they are all your language now.

Stanza Eleven

and every February, every ‘last autumn’,


a man living with English in one room.

Now in America, every February, you write away from what you wrote when you were exiled. You are no longer near the harvesters who want your work for their own nourishing. You are no longer near the Russian canals, streams being the overflow of controlled poets, who have sunstroke from constantly moving, as mentioned before at the beginning of the poem. You are now a man living in an English room in America.

Stanza Tweleve

The tourist archipelagoes of my South


but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?

Not everything is perfect as it seems, and there is still corruption, even in writing in this new land. But, the speaker says there is no more brutal prison than writing verse, meaning there is no concept that keeps you within its grasp for an extended time like writing poetry. But, the poem then mentions that poetry is worth nothing if it cannot be ingested by everyone, as then it is not poetry anymore.

Stanza Thirteen

From hand to mouth, across the centuries,


whose music will last longer than the leaves,

This stanza shows us the longevity of poetry. It shows that it lasts through centuries; when other items made by man have long been gone, the poems will stay intact. They mention that even in forests with barbed-wire fences, poets who cannot speak their minds for fear of execution still chew on a phrase, and when they get out, that phrase will be heard for longer than the prison will be standing.

Stanza Fourteen

whose condensation is the marble sweat


and memory needs nothing to repeat.

Poets in this stanza are related to the hard work of angels as if it is a duty given by god that one cannot disobey. The speaker then equates another natural beauty to the creation of a poet, the Borealis.

Next, the speaker says that while it’s still lit, poets will still be writing. Finally, the stanza ends by saying memory needs nothing to repeat, meaning poets do not need to market themselves; they will be remembered for years after due to their work.

Stanza Fifteen

Frightened and starved, with divine fever


to the rustling of ruble notes by the lemon Neva,’

Once again, the poem returns to Mandelstam, who is locked up for his writings, with a fever to continue to write, for he must write the truth. Each letter hurts for him to write. There are people out there that will hurt him for writing such words. Each word is heavy, and each vowel is a burden. This stanza shows the willingness to write and the consequences of doing so.

Stanza Sixteen

but now that fever is a fire whose glow

warms our hands, Joseph, as we grunt like primates

exchanging gutturals in this wintry cave

of a brown cottage, while in drifts outside

mastodons force their systems through the snow.

But the previously mentioned divine fever that continues to push the poet to write now becomes a fire that warms the hands of such poets.

So the poem calls to Joseph, the reader of the poetry and friend of Walcott, to warm their hands as they attempt to write and speak the words that are needed by the public to hear, under penalty of dying because of it. This warmth of the hand’s request may appear simple, but it is more of a plea than a request; Walcott is asking Joseph to give them strength to continue, to face the burden given to them.


Who is the speaker of the poemForest in Europe?’

Derek Walcott is the writer of the poem, so his words are the ones on the page, but Derek’s friend Joseph is the one reading the poem aloud. Still, the words are Walcott, so the speaker is still Walcott, not Joseph.

What is the central theme of the ‘Forest of Europe?’

‘Forest of Europe’ by Derek Walcott deals with themes of anguish, duty, and freedom.

Where is the forest in ‘Forest of Europe?’

The forest is not specific, nor is it most likely a real forest in the world. The forest is an extended metaphor and could be seen as any forest. The title mentions Europe because of the context of where exiled poets initially fled in the poem’s story. 

Why did Derek Walcott write ‘Forest of Europe’ about exiled poets?

Derek Walcott had many poets who inspired him, and he was an individual who felt that literature needed to speak volumes. So the exiled poets of history fascinated and inspired him. 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Derek Walcott poems. For example: 

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Lauren Bruce Poetry Expert
Lauren is a seasoned poetry expert, having achieved an MA in Publishing and an MFA in Creative Writing, as well as a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and a minor in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric.

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