‘Lampfall’ by Derek Walcott was published in 1969 as part of the poet’s collection The Gulf and Other Poems.
Though it is not as famous as some of his other works, this poem contains intricate layers of meaning that combine, swirling together, to offer a realistic depiction of the poet’s experiences with his friends and family.
Using contrast, allusion, and metaphor, Walcott takes the listener to a meaningful beachside gathering with his friends and family as Walcott disassociates, fearing the loss of this moment.
‘Lampfall’ by Derek Walcott is a free verse poem about the speaker’s relationship with his family, his imagination, and the power of nature to bring people together.
‘Lampfall’ opens as the speaker describes how he and his family gather on the beach, sitting around a Coleman gas lantern. The family is in utter harmony there in nature, the sounds of the lapping sea surrounding them. He compares their communal meeting to the scene in Joseph Wright’s painting A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary.
However, the speaker quickly loses himself in thought, using the metaphor of a marine creature darting deep into the ocean to describe how he gets carried away with his ideas. These ideas grab hold of him like a hook, dragging him deep into the darkness, away from the light between him and his family.
The speaker next addresses his family, describing how they look at the sea at sunset. Despite the spooky ocean-like rustle of the leaves in the forest at night, Venus, symbolizing love, is on the horizon, offering them hope.
In the final stanza, the speaker compares himself to his family, expressing that the fireflies, symbolizing nature and inquisitiveness, bring them together. These fireflies contrast with the bright, shiny, reflective beetles that reproduce on the highway, representing a more urban backdrop.
Form and Structure
There is no set form or meter in Walcott’s ‘Lamplight.’ This freedom allows Walcott to express his perspective and emotions fluidly, mimicking the wild unpredictability of the flowing ocean.
Additionally, without a strict structure to adhere to, this poem takes on a more conversational tone that sounds like the speaker’s inner thoughts.
With this insight into the speaker’s mind, the listener gets an honest view of what matters to him. Accordingly, each stanza is a sentence with a complete end stop at the end. This breaks the poem into topics and moments, creating acts similar to a stage play.
This irregularity of this confessional poem also makes a couple of poetic devices stand out. For example, there are a few rare rhymes in the poem that are all the more noticeable since they aren’t buried in a sea of other rhymes.
While ‘Lampfall’ is written in pretty plain English, it includes some obscure allusions that may make it a bit confusing.
Some of the allusions within this poem include:
- “The Coleman’s humming jet at the sea’s edge / A tuning fork.” The humming jet in this line is a portable Coleman camp lantern the family sits around on the beach. The sound of this lamp as it burns on propane is like a tuning fork, indicating that the sound brings the entire family together, helping them all emotionally harmonize with each other.
- “Joseph Wright of Derby’s astrological lecture.” This allusion, which takes place inside a simile, refers to the painting A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary. This painting depicts many people gathering around a glowing solar system model. Thus, the bright light that emanates from the model in this painting is much like the flame of the camp stove, but it is also like the sun. Both of these things bring the family together as they ‘orbit’ around the light.
- “rings of benediction.” The rings of benediction are an allusion to the gold circles that many medieval painters placed around the heads of holy men and saints in their paintings. These halos of golden paint are symbols of holiness, godliness, and an ascent into heaven.
- “the shell of my ear.” The shell of the speaker’s ear refers to the cochlea, a part of the inner ear that spirals like a snail’s shell. This use of diction allows the speaker to compare his ear to a spiraling seashell while also using actual ear anatomy. However, in this allusion, the sounds of his family’s voices curl around, or bounce back out of his ear, indicating that, while he hears the sound, he does not actually listen to it.
- “sheer Penelope!” This is an allusion to Penelope, Odysseus’ wife from The Odyssey. In this comparison, the speaker is like Odysseus, trapped deep in the dark sea of his thoughts. His friends and family are Penelope, weaving and unweaving their bright white thoughts as they look out at the ocean, waiting for Odysseus to return.
- “The forest, an ocean of leaves, drowning her children.” This allusion refers to the La Llorona, or Weeping Woman, who is similar to a Lamia, a mythological woman-serpent creature who kills children by drowning them.
- “There’s Venus.” While the poet refers to Venus, the shining planet, in this line, he also likely implies that Venus, the goddess of love, is still there on the horizon. Thus, despite the darkness, some hope and love still shine through the sky.
Walcott uses metaphor frequently in this poem to compare his feelings and thoughts to the natural world around him. For example, the “old fish” of stanza two is a metaphor for the poet’s awareness, which distracts him from being present with his family. Instead, the poet’s awareness drags him deep into the sea, where only darkness and dreams exist.
The many similes in this poem do similar things to the metaphors, allowing the poet to layer on complex symbolism and comparisons.
The poet-speaker also uses a quotation in line ten to illustrate how nature commands him. Though he is with his family, nature is distracting and powerful in this poem as it carries the speaker far away from his family, if only in thought.
Closest at lampfall
Like children, like the moth-flame metaphor,
Its silence, its raw voice,
Nor of these half-lit, windy leaves, gesticulating higher
The poem opens as the first-person speaker describes how his family gathers around a gas lantern by the ocean. While we can’t be certain who the speaker is, Walcott often wrote himself into his poems as the speaker, and it seems that he is the speaker here.
The poet then uses similes to depict the emotions he feels about how his family gathers. They all huddle around the lamp flame, like children or moths drawing close to the light. This light creates harmony within his family, indicating that they connect and commune with each other when they sit together on the beach.
However, by comparing the lamplight to the sun in the solar system model from Wright’s A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary, the modest Coleman lamp becomes the sun, with the speaker’s friends and family representing the planets. In this comparison, then, the little group of people creates a small galaxy.
The sunlight-like lamp casts halos around the peoples’ heads, indicating that, in this scene, they are all elevated, holy, and close to heaven.
However, the speaker’s focus quickly shifts to the sea. He describes the roaring — yet somehow silent — sounds of the ocean as “quarreling,” suggesting that the speaker’s thoughts and perceptions are becoming darker with the implication of an argument. Perhaps he is having some sort of internal conflict?
As his thoughts become darker, the landscape gets shadowy as well. The “half-lit, windy leaves” try to draw the speaker’s attention, commanding him to “Rejoice, rejoice…” By placing leaves in the scene, the poet-speaker again draws attention to the light, as trees naturally need light to thrive. Despite the fact that they are not getting a full sunbath, they encourage the speaker to find joy in the little Coleman lantern that draws his family together.
The imperative to “rejoice,” like the “rings of benediction,” strengthen the religious undertones in this poem. It seems that the world and his family are all encouraging the speaker to look up, accept the grace of the world, and take in the holiness of the experience of being with friends and family.
But there’s an old fish, a monster
Of primal fiction that drives barrelling
Me so deep that no lights flash
There but the plankton’s drifting, phosphorescent stars.
Stanza two of ‘Lampfall’ begins with the word “But,” indicating that the speaker’s attention is not fixated on rejoicing or the lamplight. Instead, “an old fish, a monster / of primal fiction” metaphorically drags the speaker’s thoughts deep into the sea, far from the light and the trees and his family.
The speaker emphasizes precisely how old the fish is, rather strangely. This fish is definitely far older than the speaker, and it seems possible that this fish is the foil or counterpart to the leaves in the first stanza. The leaves may have encouraged the speaker to rejoice, but the fish drags the unwilling speaker “through daydream, through nightmare.”
In this stanza, then, the fish is dragging the speaker away from the heavenly physical world. It forces him deep into his thoughts, creating a world with no light except for the “phosphorescent stars” of glowing plankton.
So, here, in stanza two, we have a sort of hero’s journey to the underworld. The speaker, though unwilling and compelled by a primordial fish, descends into dark night, far from his family and friends who gather by the heavenly light of the lamp.
It’s also worth noting that the poet-speaker uses an exclamation in line four, which works to break the fourth wall in this poem. It’s clear that the speaker is talking to us, the listeners, describing the emotional and intellectual journeys that the speaker goes on while sitting by the sea with his family.
I see with its aged eyes,
Its dead green, glaucous gaze,
Your voices curl in the shell of my ear,
In stanza three, the speaker-poet again shifts his perspective, stating that he sees the undersea world of his thoughts with the fish’s “glaucous gaze.” It seems that the speaker now sees the world through a fish-eye lens, offering a warped, circular, and ancient way of looking at the world.
This description takes a bit of thought to decode, but it seems like the speaker here is describing how, when he sits with his family, he sees everything through the lens of the past and his memories. These memories and thoughts place a dark cast over everything, dragging him away from joy.
Though the speaker is consumed by his memories and thoughts, he still sees his friends through his mind’s eyes. He states that he “shall ever be from” his family and friends, indicating that they are his starting point in everything. The people around him inspire his thoughts and experience of the world. Without these people, the speaker would never be able to be dragged deep into the sea by the fish that is his inquisitiveness, dreams, memories, and nightmares.
The speaker indicates, using metaphor, that his friends and family’s “voices curl in the shell of my ear,” suggesting that, even though the speaker is connected to the group of people on the beach, he is not actually listening to them or being present at the moment.
All day you’ve watched
The sea-rock like a loom
This is the fire that draws us by our dread
Of loss, the furnace door of heaven.
In stanza four of ‘Lampfall,’ the speaker explains that his friends and family sit on the beach all day, watching “The sea-rock like a loom / Shuttling its white wool” like Penelope from the Odyssey.
This allusion indicates that the family sits watching and weaving together the bright scene of the ocean with their eyes while waiting for the speaker to return from his dark underworld of thought.
However, in the poem, sunset has arrived, and things begin to grow darker in both atmosphere and tone. The sky glows like “an oven,” baking the warm, loving hearts of the speaker’s friends and family “Like bread.”
The speaker compares the setting sun, with its promise of approaching night, to the “furnace door of heaven.” Again, we have a religious undertone here.
This furnace door of heaven, AKA the setting sun, “draws us by our dread / Of loss.” This cryptic line means that the setting sun is the last glimpse of light at the end of the day. It is the final bit of warmth and light, but it also is a sign that it will soon set, giving way to darkness. So, this setting sun, while warm and pretty, also symbolizes the beginning of the end. Possibly, even the end of life.
At night we have heard
The forest, an ocean of leaves, drowning her children,
Still, we belong here. There’s Venus. We are not yet lost.
In stanza five, the speaker leaves the liminal time of sunset to visit the dark night. The atmosphere becomes spooky as the ominous stanza only offers us a mysterious and brief three lines.
The speaker describes the forest using pathetic fallacy, as the collective woods mutters, “drowning her children.” This allusion refers to La Llorona, a female creature or spirit from Latin myth who drowns children if they get too close to the water.
Despite the spooky sounds of the forest, which threatens to drown the speaker and his family, he states that “We belong here.” He uses parataxis, or short snappy sentences here to keep a very conversational, almost barter-like tone.
The speaker suggests “There’s Venus,” indicating that, although the dark beachside landscape is creepy and ominous, the shining planet of Venus, a symbol of love and hope, is on the horizon.
Like you, I preferred
The firefly’s starlike little
Lamp, mining, a question,
To the highway’s brightly multiplying beetles.
Stanza six forms a sort of epilogue. The speaker addresses his friends and family, who have clearly become the audience for this poem.
Like these people, the speaker states that he “preferred / The firefly’s starlike little / Lamp, mining, a question” to the glittering beetles of the highway.
There are a lot of layers to this statement. Firstly, the speaker seems to be comparing the Coleman lantern to the light of a firefly, emphasizing the importance of nature in this poem.
This light is “mining,” alluding to a miner’s lamp that lights up the dark underground caverns of a mine shaft, offering guidance and hope. This light is also “a question,” guiding the speaker into inquisitive thought, contemplation, dreams, and memory.
Thus, this lamp is a catalyst for understanding, thought, love, and hope.
However, unlike the “starlike” lantern, there are “brightly multiplying beetles” on the highway. Here, we see an unnatural scene. Although the speaker chooses the word beetles, creating a parallel image for the fireflies, it seems likely that these beetles are actually cars, their headlights “brightly multiplying.”
Thus, in the final stanza, the speaker seems to imply that urbanization is taking hold alongside the beach where his family sits by the firelight. Artificial lights and roads now join people, as compared to the circular little campfire circle that the speaker and his family enjoy.
‘Lampfall’ characteristic of Walcott’s poetic methods and concerns since the poet inserts himself as the speaker and depicts a realistic yet complex scene where he sits with his family and friends by the beach in Saint Lucia. Walcott’s focus on nature and its effects on him, it seems that the fear of urbanization overshadows the setting.
Some of the most significant themes in ‘Lampfall’ by Derek Walcott are community, family, thought, disassociation, nature, urbanization, and light. Though his family and friends feel connected together, sitting on the beach by lamplight, Walcott dives into thought, inspired by the natural world to see the scene through intellectual, nostalgic eyes. Meanwhile, the city light encroaches ominously.
The speaker in ‘Lampfall’ by Derek Walcott is unspecific and unnamed, but the listener can assume that Walcott is the speaker. Walcott often inserted himself as the speaker in his poetry, as he often wrote about his personal experiences growing up on a Caribbean island.
‘Lampfall’ by Derek Walcott is a free verse poem that has no regular rhyme scheme or meter. The fluidity of the poem and irregular stanzas follow the speaker’s fluctuating perspectives and ideas about the natural world around him. As the poem darkens in tone, the speaker recedes into a daydream full of murky forms that are much like the undefined structure of the poem.
Walcott is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, receiving the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work is best known for its ability to remove universal while exploring very specific places and ideas that often centered around his upbringing by the sea in Saint Lucia.
Some other poems by Derek Walcott poet include:
- ‘Ruins of a Great House’ – a poem about the conflict of history, emotion, and literature with the brutality of colonialism
- ‘Parades, Parades’ – an interesting, allusion-filled poem that discusses Saint Lucia after the end of British colonial rule.
- ‘Ebb’ – a poem about the speaker’s road trip along the coast where he comments on aging, industrialization, and the past.
- ‘Sea Grapes’ – a deep and interesting poem in which Walcott uses numerous allusions to investigate lust and responsibility.