‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott is a lyric that is addressed to John Figueroa, a Jamaican poet. The poem is not a poem that only centers on the life of Figueroa. It’s an expression of a poet who is nearing forty and how his mind floods with the thoughts of present and past. Age isn’t a number for the poet. It’s an hourglass that reminds the poet about the time still left and the things that can’t return. Age changes not only the physical attributes of a person but it also changes the way of seeing things. And, in this poem, the poet refers to this unavoidable change that is natural and pathetic as well.
Summary of Nearing Forty
‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott presents an insomniac poetic persona who is listening to the sound of rainfall. The cold wind due to the rainfall makes him shiver. This sensation reminds him of his age. He is nearing forty, a big number, that can turn a poet’s world upside down. He starts to think of his early writings as “the bleak modesty of middle age”. Moreover, according to the poet, age brings cynicism in a poet’s mind. His eyes start to weaken and his imagination becomes gloomy. Apart from that, in the poem, he converses with a person who is also nearing his forties. The poet shares how the person thought in earlier days and what is going to happen with his imagination after reaching forty years.
You can read the full poem Nearing Forty here.
Structure of Nearing Forty
‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott is written from a first-person point-of-view. Hence, it is an example of a modern lyric. However, in the poem the poet talks with a person who is also nearing his forties. It also makes the poem an example of a dramatic monologue. This thirty-three lines long poem doesn’t have any stanza divisions nor it has full-stops. Only the last line contains a full-stop and the thought process of the poet ends there. The poem flows like a chain of thoughts without any breaks. This writing scheme is called the stream-of-consciousness technique.
However, the poet uses both the regular rhyme and the slant rhyme in the poem. As an example, in the first four lines, “narrow” and “marrow” contain a regular rhyming scheme. And, “rain” and “pane” contain a slant rhyme. Apart from that, the poem consists of the iambic meter and trochaic meter. The mixed metrical scheme makes the flow of the poem more rhythmic. At any point, the sound of the poem doesn’t seem monotonous for its interesting use of rising and falling rhythm.
Literary Devices in Nearing Forty
‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott makes use of the enjambment throughout the poem. It helps the poet to internally connect the lines without breaking the rhythm. There is a metaphor in the comparison of rain’s sound to a “rigidly metred” song. Personification is also there in the poem and it can be seen in the line, “… as its coolness numbs the marrow”. In this line, “marrow” contains a synecdoche. However, the poet uses another metaphor to compare the dimming vision at the age of forty to “a frosted pane”. The poet also uses several imagery and symbols in the poem. The imagery of “false dawn” for representing the quality of the poet’s early works is interesting enough.
Moreover, the poet uses an epigram in the line where he talks about the significance of simplicity in versification. While talking about the pages on which Walcott wrote poems, he uses a beautiful simile. But, the essence of the line somehow appears as an irony. Apart from that the poet also uses alliteration. As an example, “simple, shining” and “bleaching bedsheet” contain the repetition of the same consonant sound. The repetition of the consonant sound makes these phrases examples of consonances too. Moreover, there are a lot more similes present in the lines, “ambition as a searing meteor”, “for vision narrower than a louvre’s gap”, “as greenhorns at school”, and “as the new moon moves it”. In the end, the poet uses a pathetic fallacy that justly reflects the mood of the poem.
Analysis of Nearing Forty
Insomniac since four, hearing this narrow,
as a false dawn, fireless and average,
‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott begins with auditory imagery of the “early-rising rain”. The sound appears to the poet as a narrow and rigidly metred song. The sound makes the poet recount his old days but the cold wind makes his bones quiver. It reminds him of his age. He is nearing the age of forty. Forty, the number, seems to trouble the poet. His eyes would dim and his vision would become hazy. Here, the poet uses an image of ice thickening on a “frosted pane” to compare it with the hazy vision in old age.
Moreover, the poet thinks age transforms the mindset of a person. Likewise, the poet may judge his works as if those were filled with bleak medievalism. The new-born cynic inside the poet might treat his poetic inspiration to false dawn. The metaphor used in this phrase also reflects the pessimistic attitude of the old poet. However, the other metaphors “fireless” and “average” also represents how the poet’s mood floods with gloom and hopelessness with the thought of him being old.
which would be just, because your life bled for
of occasional insight,
In this section of ‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott, the speaker justifies the theme of his early works. According to the poet, his early works dealt with “household truth” that were either unheard or remained buried. His stylistics never welcomed ornamental metaphors into his poetry. The poet fought and bled for the truth like a soldier and gave exemplary expressions an embodiment of simplicity. The lines of the poems he composed were lucid and that still shines in the poet’s inner vision.
In contrast, in the upcoming lines, the poet metaphorically compares the “household truth” to the rainwater that gutters through a “rainspout” or a spout that drains rainwater from the roof. And, the pages on which he wrote his early verse was like “a bleaching bedsheet”. Thereafter, the poet refers to the “sputter”, a metaphor for criticism, his works got from the occasional insight. Here, the poet uses synecdoche and refers to insightful persons or literary critics.
you who foresaw
call conventional for convectional;
In this section of ‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott, the poet invokes John Figueroa in his poem. Figueroa was also nearing his forties. There was a time when he was an ambitious poet like “a searing meteor”. But, now he smiles at his youthful imagination. Here, the poet depicts an imaginary picture of Figueroa lighting a “damp match” and settling a “dented kettle”. The phrases present here such as “damp match” and “dry wheezing of dented kettle” are the metaphorical reference to Figueroa’s present state. He has lost the energy and enthusiasm like a “damp match” and age has created indentation like an old kettle. In this way, Walcott presents how a person changes in his old age and becomes more passive at heart. The experiences that life has taught a person, makes him more calculative and cautious in his future.
Moreover, in the upcoming lines, the poet compares the weakening of vision to the “louvre’s gap”. Thereafter, he talks about the cynical attitude of the old Figueroa. According to the poet, he might judge the amount of rainfall cynically by only referring to the rainfall at the year’s end. However, the poet creates a contrast in the last few lines of this section. When the poet was in school, he mistakenly pronounced the convectional rain as “conventional” rain. By using the word “conventional” the poet intends an irony. That one who once tried to become unique, at his old age he becomes a mere conventional person.
or you will rise and set your lines to work
even when it seems to weep.
In the last section of ‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott, the poet tells his fellow poet that he can start to write again. There will be “sadder joy”, an oxymoron, for the loss of his youthful optimism. But, there will be a “steadier elation”, another oxymoron, for the experience he had now as a mature man. Moreover, the poet sighs for the weakening of the imagination power both in him and his friend. Here, he uses the metaphor of ebbing of the seawater to compare it to the loss of vibrant imagination in the poet’s old-age.
In the last few lines, the poet ironically refers to measuring the “force of lightly falling rain” for comparing the process to his versification. However, in the end, the poet uses a pathetic fallacy to refer to the moon’s weeping as a reaction to the poet’s present state.
Historical Context of Nearing Forty
‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott is dedicated to his fellow poet John Figueroa. John Joseph Maria Figueroa was a Jamaican poet and became associated with Walcott later in his life. Here, in this poem, the poet talks about old-age that changes both the poet and Figueroa. The poet captures how they would think in the future. Moreover, he creates a contrasting image of the poet’s youth and old-age in this poem.
Like ‘Nearing Forty’ by Derek Walcott, the following poems present a similar kind of theme.
- When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats – Here, William Butler Yeats talks about the effect of old-age on love.
- Beautiful Old Age by D.H. Lawrence – Here, D.H. Lawrence describes the beauty of old-age.
- Old Men by Ogden Nash – Here, Ogden Nash talks about how old men react to death.
- Old Men by Kenneth Fearing – Here, Kenneth Fearing presents the lives and hopes of the older people.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Life here.