Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Ruins of Great House’ follows the narrator as they walk through a decayed lime plantation in the Caribbean, built during colonial times. The poem’s narrator related the decaying of the mansion and its grounds to its past of oppressive imperialists.
This poem examines many deep topics, such as the consequences of colonization, the moral and ethical entanglement with the oppression and enslavement of the African people, and British brutality throughout history.
This poem also creates an extended metaphor as it links British literature’s significant authors and their quotes. Clearly, he truly idealizes them but then connects them with the brutality of British colonialism, leading him to an ethical breakdown.
Explore Ruins of a Great House
In ‘Ruins of a Great House,’ a great house once stood, but now there is nothing but ruins and a man walking through them, grieving for all that the ruins implied.
Derek Walcott’s Poem ‘Ruins of a Great House’ reflects on the cruel actions of British colonialism, which relates it to the decayed ruins upon which the narrator walks. Not only does the poem connect the brutality to the ruins but also to the British literature he is so fond of.
Structure and Form
‘Ruins of a Great House‘ is a free verse poem, which means it has no set end rhyme scheme or regular metrical beat. There are no rules to free verse except not following any rules of any other structure. Most find it hard not to fall into a pattern in some way, shape, or form when writing, so writing free verse is a conscious decision made by the author, proving he thought this structure was best meant for this poem.
The poem uses Enjambment often (when the line runs into the next without punctuation, but with clear sense). You first see this in lines five and six, which frequently continue throughout the poem. While there is no rhyme or scheme to this poem, the lack of punctuation gives the poem a specific flow and pace.
‘Ruins of a Great House‘ uses many different literary devices throughout it’s story, below are a few of the most important ones.
- Extended metaphor: extended metaphor is a metaphor used throughout the entire piece instead of in one place. This poem compares British colonialism’s history and consequences to the ruins of the house and lime plantation. This comparison works on many levels. It shows the fundamental decaying aspects left behind, identifying colonialism’s cruel results. It also uses historically accurate items such as limes to inform readers about actual history.
- Personification: In this story, cherubs are broken and covered in unknown residue. Cherubs are wings beings that guarded Eden in the bible and are often painted on the ceiling of churches. In this story, we see a physical manifestation of artwork about them, and then the speaker brings them to life. They scream, and they feel emotions of fear and pain. The speaker uses personification to show these holy beings are also horrifically shocked by the events that had transpired in this place.
- Imagery: Imagery is one of the most important literary devices used in this poem, as the images of what has been transcribed and what is left create emotions in the audience and the speaker. Almost every line that speaks of outside images shows descriptive visual language that shifts the words into horrific pictures.
though our longest sun sets at right declensions and
makes but winter arches,
it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and
have our light in ashes. . .
Browne, Urn Burial
This is a quote from Browne that starts off the story. The first British author is mentioned in the tale, but not the last. It sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as the quote is about death and ultimate destruction, the ruins of one’s body, and the final resting place.
Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
The leprosy of empire.
‘Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!’
The poem starts by simply observing the surrounding areas. Then, it shows various images as the speaker walks through the ruins. The first image is that of scattered stones; The first ten lines are pure observation, image upon image piling up as the speaker moves through the ruins. In the first lines, the speaker writes the scattering of stones uniquely, “disjecta membra” which means scattered fragments in Latin. This could be about Horace’s Disjecta Membra Poetae, meaning Limbs of a Dismembered Poet, providing the secondary literary reference in the poem.
The Speaker brings up an image of who might have once lived there. Young girls who perhaps ran around in the stars at night as now the same dust as the building. Then the Speaker mentions that lizards have moved into the broken estate, as nature has reclaimed the spot for its own after the British have abounded, or more accurately destroyed, what it was before.
Broken Cherubs are lying in pain and fear; once beautifully crafted pieces of the estate now lay on the ground in ways holy figures should not be treated. In talking about the Cherubs, the Speaker uses personification to bring the non-living items to life through the view of the bible. First, it says they scream out in pain and fear, implying that what they have seen has haunted the angelic creatures. The poem states they are stained with an uncertain substance. This substance suggests it is because of the horrible events in this estate. This could be blood or ashes, both disrespecting a holy creature. Lastly, the Speaker says that the residue is also guilt, and it’s unclear if the guilt is the Cherubs’ guilt for being unable to help or the guilt of the British empire permanently stained the holy beings.
Next, the Speaker mentions three crows sitting in the eucalyptus trees. Three crows are often used to represent evil and doom in more literature. The author likely intended to cement the idea that these ruins did not happen naturally in the reader’s mind.
The following image presented to us is the limes, which is what the plantation grew, and of which are all dead. This is an important historical factor as limes are full of vitamin C and were often used to keep the British navy from Scurvy while at sea. It would seem that this plantation was created to help the British navy during their conquests, and it’s insinuated that they most likely used enslaved Africans to do it.
The last lines of the stanza are the third British poet reference in the poem. The line is a paraphrase of a line in Blake’s poem, “Night.” In this poem, the theme is good versus evil. Walcott uses this detail to establish the connection between evil and colonialism and the British empire’s destruction of others’ histories and cultures. When they say goodbye in the poem, the Speaker implies it truly means goodbye to freedom and happiness when the British take control.
Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.
The Speaker continues to describe the ruins as he makes his way through them. The Speaker describes marble, usually white, as used here for building. The mention of marble like that used in Greece insinuates that this marble is of the highest class, as it’s known that Greece used the finest marble for their ancient structures and statues. In the next moment, he says, “Faulkner’s South,” which refers to the novelist William Faulkner, known for his novels and stories of the southern states of America. This is important because the south was known for its harsh colonialism and slavery. The Speaker implies that the house was meant to stand firmly alongside evil ideals. Faulkner had a love/hate relationship with the south, which adds to the Speaker’s comparison of British colonialism to British literature.
The speaker moves to the foliage, showing the deciduous tree that typically loses all its leaves once a year but is now dead, and its leaves are gone forever. There is also mention of unknown trees nearby, so the Speaker can not identify their type. All leaves that were once on any tree lay decaying on the ground.
At the end of this stanza in ‘Ruins of a Great House,’ the speaker references another British author, Milton’s Paradise Lost. He references it when he mentions that bone is decaying under the leaves, just beyond our eyes, a significant reference to the literature and perhaps a realistic possibility in Walcott’s poem. There could be a person or animal from the past decaying just past the items we see, unmoved on the forest floor. These are the four primary author references, which show an interesting comparison in the poem’s theme. The author quotes many British authors and agrees with them but does not condone British colonialism or the spread of British rule.
It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.
In this stanza, the speaker now confirms the earlier speculation of this being a lime plantation. The speaker mentions that good soil from the plantation is now at the river’s edge. It mentions that the people who once lived here, the arrogant (imperious rakes) men in charge and their girls, are far gone now. The river, mentioned in the previous lines, wipes away the hurt those people left behind. The Speaker feels a lot of emotions walking through the ruins and can sense something horrible had happened here at one point in time, but the present day seems to be attempting to wipe away the evils of the estate. Nature has taken over; even the mighty built structures can’t keep out the worm or mouse. The Speaker uses the word rent in mentioning the worm, implying that the worm takes something from the estate. The Speaker also uses the phrase calvary with the mice, as if telling the reader that the mice are reclaiming their land, with military strategy, rescuing this place.
The next author’s reference follows this realization of feelings for the estate with a thought from Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was once known as the poet of the empire. He was an imperialist who was loyal to the process of colonization, seeing it as a “burden to white men ” using the bible as often as the sword to justify the mass subjugation, and he mentions that outright in the last line. This poet’s reference sparks when the Speaker hears the rattle of the dead lime trees (the trees that kept British soldiers alive) in the wind.
A critical moment to consider in this poem is lines 23-26, in this stanza, where the Speaker becomes a person for the first time, as “I” originated in this line and not any time beforehand. Furthermore, this “I” is when the Speaker becomes more active, climbing over items and being more reckless as he explores and feels deep emotions in ruins.
A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.
As the Speaker gets closer to the house, near or on the green lawn, he thinks about how he is here and the situation around him. He notes the cruelties of the past, which seem to weigh him down, causing him to judge the cultural dilemmas within the ruins.
After this, he gives three examples of English explorers (navel men, known as Sea Dogs). Two of the mentioned explorers were historically involved in the slave trade, and the Speaker notes that they are both murderers and poets. The last poet mentioned cannot be connected to such cruelties, as Raleigh was a poet but not a murderer in any way. This confirms the mental confrontation the Speaker has been fighting. How can a nation produce both outstanding poets and horrible murderers, and how can they sometimes be the same and other times not? The Speaker is morally confused, as their ancestors, now mentioned, were mistreated, but the speaker talks using the English language.
The stench of limes hits him, noting that the poet does not use any form of a nice word to describe the lime aroma. The scent encompasses all the horrible deeds of the British in one inhale for this Speaker and leads into the most straightforward line in the poem. “Men come and go, the rotten things they do remain.” The stench of limes will linger for a long time, as it will take many years for an entire lime plantation to become something new. The Speaker relates that fact to history because the men who did horrible deeds are long dead, but their acts and names are left in history books for years to come.
A wind picks up, blowing ashes into the wind, blackening the ember of the mind. Embers get red when ignited, so the wind, at this moment, calmed the Speaker’s mind, but his eyes still burned from the sight and references another poet. Donne is a metaphysical poet who wrote many pieces after his severe illness took over. This connects well to the Speaker’s mental state, as he is now speaking of things after he has seen this horrible place and cannot go back to unseeing it.
Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
So differently from what the heart arranged:
‘as well as if a manor of thy friend’s. . . ‘
The Speaker, who now has a highly conflicted emotional state, gets enraged as he pictures a slave in the lake, but his compassionate thoughts try to calm him with reasoning. The Speaker uses many references and interesting word choices in the following few lines. He says Albion, the name for Great Britain in ancient times, references Britain’s history of invasion and dates back to the fact that Great Britain was once a colony of the Roman empire for around four hundred and fifty years. The Speaker uses this as a more compassionate take on the situation he finds himself in now. He stays on this walk down history as he quotes Donne again with the words “Part of the continent, piece of the main” but then switches to Shakespeare’s words in a blink, “nook-shotten.” This language shows the Speaker traveling backward in British history to when Britain was subject to foreign rule. He reminds himself they, too, had abused.
The last three lines of ‘Ruins of a Great House’ conclude with a notion that there will never be forgiveness between them but an understanding that, based on Donne’s idea, no one is completely isolated, and a man’s death affects everyone, and that, in terms of history, creates a lot of tragedy. The Speaker, in this stanza, goes from anger to compassion to understanding. Not all wounds can be healed when destruction is staring you down, especially when the past is still someone’s presence in another place. But, it leaves the reader thinking about how abuse in history is a form of the circle and how power and colonialism have destroyed many cultures worldwide.
Derek Walcott did not use rhyme schemes in ‘Ruins of a Great House‘ for possibly two reasons. First, the nonsensical and unattached structure makes the readers feel more connected to the Speaker, allowing them to guide them more as they cannot predict the following line’s movement. Another possibility is that Walcott wanted to write this poem in the same way he sees history being written, without the main structure.
The title can be taken with a bit of irony and a bit of a literal sense. In one case, the house represents the British Empire, which shows some irony as the Speaker does not consider the British Empire to be “great” at all. It also plays on words because “great” is used for Great Britain. Yet, in the literal sense, the title also means exactly what it says. The house was beautiful, outstanding, and great, and now it’s in ruins.
In his poem, Walcott references many historical contextual events, such as limes. He also cites multiple authors throughout the piece. These only escalate his conflicting argument about colonization and abuse in history. It validates the Speaker’s conflicting emotions towards the British and their people and provides others with context into historical events.
The speaker in the poem is a person whose culture has been abused by the British empire. As they are in the Caribbean, it is most likely through the eyes of a local there, but it is not explicitly identified as such.
If you liked this poem, you might also like these other poems from Derek Walcott.
- ‘Love After Love’ – a poem provides invaluable advice to anyone going through a crisis.
- ‘Names’ – is a poem that talks about history and identity.
- ‘Nearing Forty’ – a poem that dives into the topic of aging and the changes it puts people through.