Love After Love by Derek Walcott is a poem, made up of four stanzas, that is presented in the form of a person offering advice to someone who is distressed. Within those four stanzas, readers can infer that the distress comes from a bad relationship that either has ended or should end and that the person hearing this advice is still suffering from the sadness of the experience. Regardless, Walcott assures this person—this “you”—that not only will things get better, but that the overall state of things will improve in the wake of this relationship. The reason for this seems to be the main theme of the poem as the speaker insists, again and again, that who this person has become does not accurately represent who they truly are, but one day, their true self will return. On that day, they will be happy again since only in embracing who they are can they fully be content. You can read the full poem here.
Love After Love Analysis
The time will come
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
The structural design of this stanza is very free, in that even basic rules of grammar are not limiting Walcott’s presentation. Specifically, the use of commas is lacking, almost as if Walcott has thrown them in where he feels the desire to and without regard for what grammar rules state. The consequences include non-essential clauses lacking needed commas, such as “with elation” which only has the comma leading into it. But the lack of commas becomes a bigger issue in the final two lines since the result of not placing a comma before the last line—before “and each…”—is a run-on sentence.
Certainly, this analysis is not meant as a proofreading exercise, but this lack of structure says something about the meaning of Love After Love . There is a freeing theme to Walcott’s work, and having the liberty to build his sentences without regulations expresses that freedom. Not until later does the reader encounter why the poem is about a kind of liberty, but basic details of the situation are presented in this first stanza.
Through these opening lines, the reader can infer that whatever is destined to occur in this future-looking work, the person it will happen to will approve since it will spark “elation,” and most notably, whatever causes this “elation” will be the product of the person who experiences it. This simple idea is brought to light through what reads as a complex narrative of having a person “[arrive at their] own door” and “smile.” Since a person cannot literally have this happen where their exactness greets them, the reader is encouraged to step into a more metaphoric concept for the lines.
If the reader applies that deeper meaning to the lines, the understanding is that there will be a future moment when this person comes to know and appreciate who they are, and embracing their own worth will be a satisfying experience.
and say, sit here. Eat.
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
Once more, we encounter lines that do not obey grammar rules, such as dialogue that is not grammatically treated like dialogue and the single word, yourself, that is divided into two pieces: “your self.” This word separation is of particular interest since it is a representation of this person having been broken in two parts—the part that will return one day and the part that is as their situation caused them to be. In any event, this strategy speaks to the freeing element that is at work in Walcott’s poem by showcasing how freeing it can be to come to know and appreciate oneself.
Beyond this already established method of highlighting freedom, though, this stanza provides the reader with a sense of what has occurred before this interaction between the speaker and the person addressed. In particular, the stanza tells this person to “give back [their] heart to itself,” which implies that they offered their love to someone who did not appreciate it. Should the person who was the recipient of that love have cared for it and treated it well, there would be no cause to repossess it since it would have been under good guardianship.
Additionally, Walcott provides clues as to why the heart needed to be repossessed in mentioning that the reintroduction of this person to their own being will be an introduction to “the stranger who has loved [them].” For someone to become a “stranger” to their own person, something has to separate them from their priorities and ideas. Logically, after all, if a person maintains a sense of self on a day-to-day basis, there is little room to lose track of that self along the way. What this hints in connection with the idea of repossessing the “heart” is that another person—the one who had been the recipient of the “heart”—has so grandly torn down who the person being addressed is, this “you” is a “stranger” in their own eyes.
all your life, whom you ignored
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
This stanza of Love After Love solidifies the notion that the person addressed has handed over a great deal of self to a third party since the self that will resurface is one who has been “ignored for another.” What was a theory beforehand then becomes a concrete detail of the work, particularly when later in the stanza, “love letters” are referenced as things that need to be “take[n] down.” What this lets the reader know is that the relationship that stole this person’s sense of identity was a romantic one that has either ended or is on the brink of ending—possibly as a decision that this “you” will make.
The end of this relationship is a great thing for this person, and one day, they will not reminisce about the romance with sadness. Rather, they will feel happiness once they return to who they truly are with a lesson of the importance of being true to their identity. After all, this person’s self is the one “who knows [them] by heart,” and has been there throughout the person’s “life”, despite being “ignored.” This notion shows understanding and commitment, and joy will come when this person embraces who they are once again.
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Continued are the things that can be “take[n] down” in the wake of this bad relationship, such as “photographs” and “desperate notes.” Basically, Walcott is telling this person to cleanse from all aspects of the poor experience to prepare for this moment of re-knowing their own being, and the idea that this approach is best is referenced once more with the description of those “notes.” They are “desperate,” and though Walcott does not say whose “desperation” is penned there, the prospect of it belonging to the person addressed is genuine. Nothing good has been said about this relationship for the “you” hearing this advice, so assuming that this is an additional negative aspect for this “you” is a safe prospect.
After telling this person several things to leave behind in this stanza and the previous one, Walcott goes—via comma splice—into the advice of “peel your own image from the mirror.” On the first appearance, the statement can feel like a contrasting turn of events since the speaker has said, over and over, that this person’s self is what they can depend on and what can make them happy. Remember, though, that in prior lines, Walcott is referencing the reintroduction of the whole person, not just one “image.” This one “image” is likely the “mirror” reflection of this person as they grieve over the relationship that is so heart-breaking. If this is the case, Walcott is instructing this person to get past this grief—this moment that is reflected in “the mirror”—and think on other things that are more connected to who they are. Rather than sulk, then, the “you” in question should focus on their own self, “[their own] life,” and hold to the goodness that exists outside of this relationship for comfort.
Essentially, Walcott is saying to look past even the immediate grief of the breakup in favor of reflecting on the good, personal things. In doing so, this person can start walking toward a better life, and one day, they will find their way back to knowing who they are once again. In that moment when “they will greet their own self arriving at their own door and in their own mirror,” they will find true happiness, something that cannot exist without embracing who they are.
About Derek Walcott
First published at the age of only 14, Derek Walcott is a poet, playwright, and painter who has been awarded the Nobel Prize and the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. Through the strength of his works, his status in the writing world is still relevant decades after his writing debut. Mostly a 20th-century writer, Walcott passed away in 2017, leaving behind a number of written works to his credit.