‘The Light of the World’ by Derek Walcott contemplates beauty, privilege, and empathy. The speaker reflects on encounters during a bus ride, realizing the disconnect between his own life and the struggles of others.
Through introspection, he acknowledges his privilege, desires deeper connections, and understands the importance of empathy. The poem explores the complexities of human emotions, the yearning for shared experiences, and the transformative impact of recognizing the light within each person’s story.
Explore The Light of the World
‘The Light of the World‘ by Derek Walcott is a poignant poem that encapsulates themes of beauty, longing, belonging, and abandonment.
The speaker reflects on a journey in a sixteen-seater transport, marked by encounters, memories, and a profound connection to humanity’s struggles.
As Marley’s music played in the transport, the speaker noticed the beauty of a woman, observing her features with an artist’s eye. Her black skin held silkened lights, and the image of her profile and highlit cheek embodied the idea of beauty as a radiant force. The speaker felt a strong attraction and a sense of reverence, imagining her as the metaphorical light of the world.
Amidst the ride through Gros-Islet and the Market, the speaker observed scenes of Saturday’s sales, rum shops, and the remnants of a busy day. These sights invoked a remembrance of the past – gas lanterns, vendors, and childhood memories. The Market now closed and shrouded in darkness, became a metaphor for life’s complexity.
The speaker’s gaze wandered to two girls, with a desire for one and passing indifference for the other. They triggered thoughts of the speaker’s mother and the town’s box houses, hinting at a sense of displacement. The poem then shifts to an encounter with an old woman in distress, using her plea “Pas quittez moi a terre” to symbolize the abandonment and suffering experienced by marginalized communities.
The speaker grapples with guilt for abandoning these people and their struggles as he contemplates his privileged position. He yearns for a connection with the woman he admires, envisioning a simple life together by the beach. He desires to share her world, to validate her existence, and never leave her alone on earth.
The transport ride is both a physical and emotional journey. The presence of Marley’s music and the company of fellow passengers create an atmosphere of camaraderie and shared experiences. The speaker wishes for the transport to continue indefinitely, fearing that departing would mean leaving behind the warmth of this unity.
Ultimately, the poem reflects the speaker’s realization of his own privilege and the pain of abandoning others to their struggles. The poignant moment when the van stops to return the dropped pack of cigarettes represents an unexpected gesture of connection, showing that even small acts can embody the light of compassion and humanity in a world that often leaves people in the dark.
Structure and Form
‘The Light of the World‘ by Derek Walcott is organized into eight stanzas, each containing an uneven number of lines, reflecting the poem’s free-verse form. The absence of a consistent rhyming scheme contributes to its organic and unstructured nature. This form mirrors the speaker’s introspective and contemplative journey, allowing for a fluid exploration of themes.
The varying stanza lengths emphasize shifts in the speaker’s thoughts and experiences. The first stanza introduces the scene, while subsequent stanzas delve into encounters, memories, and reflections, each with its own distinct emotional resonance. The form’s lack of rigidity permits the poem to adapt to the speaker’s evolving emotions.
Walcott’s choice of free verse aligns with the poem’s thematic depth. The absence of strict rhyme and meter gives the poet greater freedom to convey complex emotions and experiences. The poet can weave a nuanced narrative without the constraints of traditional poetic structures, mirroring the intricacies of human emotions and relationships.
The poem’s lack of a traditional rhyming scheme also underscores its raw and unfiltered nature. The absence of predetermined rhyme patterns allows the poet to convey authenticity, enabling the reader to connect with the speaker’s emotions on a deeper level.
The fluctuating line lengths and stanza arrangements mirror the ebb and flow of the speaker’s thoughts and experiences, creating a dynamic rhythm. The poem’s structure mirrors the unpredictability of life itself, where encounters and reflections may vary in intensity and significance.
This form allows Walcott to navigate between different scenes, thoughts, and emotions seamlessly, as seen in the poem’s shifts from observing the beauty of the woman to reminiscing about childhood memories. The varying stanza lengths capture the non-linear nature of memory and contemplation.
Derek Walcott’s poem “The Light of the World” addresses several themes, including beauty, belonging, abandonment, and the contrast between privilege and marginalization. The poem’s exploration of beauty is evident in the speaker’s vivid descriptions of the woman’s features, highlighting her radiance as a metaphorical light of the world. Lines like “streaked and defined them” and “silkened her black skin” emphasize her striking appearance.
The theme of belonging is conveyed through the speaker’s desire to be connected to the woman by the window, symbolizing a longing for intimacy and a sense of home. The speaker envisions a shared life, a small house by the beach, and an emotional bond that transcends physical presence. This theme highlights the universal yearning for connection and companionship.
Abandonment emerges as a central theme as the speaker grapples with the idea of leaving behind the marginalized and oppressed. The old woman’s plea, “Don’t leave me on earth,” represents the abandonment and suffering of marginalized communities. This theme underscores the speaker’s guilt for his own privilege and detachment from their struggles.
The contrast between privilege and marginalization is evident in the speaker’s realization of his privileged position and the hardships faced by others. The speaker’s attraction to the woman and his desire to share her world illustrate the stark disparities in experiences. The poem’s use of the term “transients like myself” in reference to the Halcyon Hotel guests emphasizes this divide.
Additionally, the poem touches on the passage of time and the transitory nature of life. Memories of gas lanterns, childhood scenes, and the closing of the Market evoke a sense of nostalgia and the inevitability of change.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
Derek Walcott employs various poetic techniques and figurative language in ‘The Light of the World‘ to convey his message.
- Imagery: This is prominent throughout the poem, such as describing the woman’s cheek as having “lights on the planes” and her skin “silkened.” These visual descriptions evoke a vivid image of her beauty.
- Metaphors: These play a significant role, with the woman’s beauty being equated to “the light of the world,” emphasizing her radiance and significance. The comparison of her profile to “Delacroix’s Liberty leading the People” adds depth to her portrayal.
- Simile: Walcott utilizes simile when he likens the woman’s odor to that of a “still panther.” This comparison enhances the sensory experience, hinting at her allure and power.
- Enjambment: This technique is skillfully used to create a flowing rhythm that mirrors the speaker’s contemplative thoughts. For instance, the line “it was like a statue, like a black Delacroix’s” carries the reader’s attention smoothly from one image to the next.
- Repetition: Repetition of the phrase “Don’t leave me on earth” reinforces the old woman’s plea for not being abandoned, underscoring the theme of abandonment and marginalization.
- Symbolism: Walcott employs symbolic language as the woman’s beauty is likened to “the light of the world.” This symbolizes her significance and perhaps a larger representation of hope.
- Allusion: The poem’s title itself, ‘The Light of the World,’ is a biblical allusion that adds depth to the woman’s portrayal, possibly suggesting a Christ-like figure.
- Sensory language: Walcott uses sensory language to engage the reader’s senses, such as “scent,” “rattling of enamel plates,” and “thud-sobbing music.” These sensory details immerse the reader into the poem’s world.
Marley was rocking on the transport’s stereo
and the beauty was humming the choruses quietly.
I could see where the lights on the planes of her cheek
but gradually even that was going in the dusk,
except the line of her profile, and the highlit cheek,
and I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!
In the opening stanza of Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Light of the World,’ the speaker presents a vivid and introspective portrayal of the woman’s beauty and its significance. The stanza not only introduces the physical appearance of the woman but also serves as a foundation for the thematic exploration of beauty and its transformative power.
The stanza begins with a musical ambiance, with “Marley rocking on the transport’s stereo.” This detail sets a relaxed and sensory tone, indicating a moment of leisure and perhaps escape. The use of Marley’s music as a backdrop also hints at a cultural connection and provides a context for the scene.
The speaker’s attention then shifts to “the beauty,” who is humming the choruses quietly. This simple act reveals the woman’s inner world and introduces her as a figure of grace and subtlety. The contrast between the energetic music and her quiet humming suggests an intriguing duality, further piquing the reader’s curiosity.
The speaker’s observations become more focused as he notes the “lights on the planes of her cheek.” This imagery portrays the play of light and shadow on her face, creating a visual contrast. The metaphor of a portrait emphasizes the artistry in her appearance, hinting at her symbolic significance.
The phrase “silkened her black skin” employs tactile imagery to convey the smoothness and elegance of her complexion. This description transforms her skin into something luxurious and precious, underscoring the idea of beauty as a transformative force.
The stanza also delves into the speaker’s imaginary embellishments, revealing his desire to enhance her appearance with an earring “in good gold.” This provides insight into the speaker’s appreciation for aesthetic contrasts and his thoughts on how to enhance her beauty.
The speaker’s description of an “odour coming from her, as from a still panther” brings in olfactory imagery that evokes a sense of allure and power. This simile introduces a sense of mystery and sensuality, adding depth to the woman’s characterization.
The stanza culminates with the assertion that “O Beauty, you are the light of the world!” This line directly addresses the woman’s significance, elevating her to symbolic status. The use of apostrophe conveys a sense of awe and reverence, as if the speaker is addressing a deity-like figure.
Derek Walcott conveys the transformative power of beauty and sets the stage for deeper explorations of themes and the complexities of human perception.
It was not the only time I would think of that phrase
in the electric rum shops. I remember the shadows.
In the second stanza, the speaker shifts from describing the woman’s beauty to reflecting on recurring thoughts and experiences during a journey on a sixteen-seater transport. Through detailed descriptions of the setting, the stanza conveys a sense of contrast, highlighting the duality of human existence and the complexities of life.
The stanza opens with the phrase, “It was not the only time I would think of that phrase,” referring to the assertion that the woman is the “light of the world.” This indicates that the speaker’s contemplation of her significance is a recurring thought, suggesting its profound impact on his mind.
The mention of the “sixteen-seater transport” creates a sense of movement and transience, positioning the speaker and the readers within the context of a journey. This transportation acts as a physical and metaphorical vessel for the speaker’s thoughts and reflections.
As the transport “hums between Gros-Islet and the Market,” it navigates between contrasting environments. Gros-Islet is associated with the woman’s beauty and a sense of transcendence, while the Market is marked by the “grit of charcoal” and “litter of vegetables,” symbolizing the mundane and the transient nature of life.
The “roaring rum shops” and the image of “drunk women on pavements” evoke a sense of revelry and melancholy, underscoring the bittersweet realities of life’s highs and lows. The phrase “winding up their week, winding down their week” captures the cyclic nature of existence and the emotions associated with it.
The speaker reflects on the Market’s closure on a Saturday night, juxtaposing it with memories of his childhood. The “wandering gas lanterns” and the “old roar of vendors and traffic” evoke a sense of nostalgia, contrasting with the present. The imagery of the lamplighter and the children’s faces highlights the passage of time and the transition from innocence to experience.
The “involved darkness” of the Market and the “shadows quarrelled for bread” suggest a sense of struggle and conflict within the context of daily life. The description of shadows quarreling for the “formal custom of quarrelling” in the electric rum shops adds an ironic touch, hinting at both the triviality and significance of human interactions.
The van was slowly filling in the darkening depot.
sweets, nuts, sodden chocolates, nut cakes, mints.
In the third stanza, the speaker continues to reflect on his surroundings and personal experiences, unveiling layers of nostalgia, desire, and contemplation. Through detailed descriptions and introspection, the stanza explores themes of memory, identity, and the complexities of human emotions.
The stanza begins with the description of the van filling in a “darkening depot.” This image sets a somber and reflective tone, hinting at the passage of time and the transition from day to night. The term “darkening” also carries symbolic weight, suggesting both the fading of light and the speaker’s evolving emotions.
The speaker positions himself in the front seat, suggesting a sense of control and observation. His assertion that he “had no need for time” implies a detachment from the constraints of time, emphasizing his immersion in the moment and his contemplative state of mind.
The introduction of “two girls” captures the speaker’s attention, but his focus rests on one with a “yellow bodice” and “yellow shorts,” who exudes vibrancy. The choice to “lust in peace” indicates a serene and private contemplation while also addressing the speaker’s desire in a more subdued manner.
The speaker’s mention of his hometown, where he “was born and grew up,” introduces a theme of nostalgia and reflection on his roots. The description of the “tilting box houses” as “perverse in their cramp” conveys a sense of ambivalence and perhaps estrangement from the familiar.
The speaker’s gaze into “parlours with half-closed jalousies” provides a glimpse into private spaces, creating a voyeuristic mood. The descriptions of “dim furniture,” “Morris chairs,” and a “centre table with wax flowers” evoke a sense of domesticity and the passage of time.
The inclusion of the “lithograph of Christ of the Sacred Heart” adds a religious undertone, suggesting the intersection of spirituality and personal reflection. The presence of “vendors still selling to the empty streets” conveys a sense of solitude and echoes the theme of transience.
The list of items being sold, including “sweets, nuts, sodden chocolates, nut cakes, mints,” creates a sensory experience and emphasizes the everyday nature of these scenes. This list captures the essence of ordinary life and resonates with the poem’s exploration of the mundane and the sublime.
An old woman with a straw hat over her headkerchief
Abandonment was something they had grown used to.
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Light of the World,’ the focus shifts to an encounter with an old woman, which serves as a poignant commentary on abandonment, human suffering, and the resilience of marginalized communities. Through this encounter, the poem delves into historical and cultural dimensions, highlighting themes of empathy and the impact of systemic neglect.
The stanza begins with the introduction of the “old woman with a straw hat over her headkerchief.” This image immediately evokes a sense of vulnerability and age, setting the tone for the ensuing narrative.
The woman is described as “hobbled,” emphasizing her physical limitations and suggesting a lifetime of hardship. Her approach towards the speaker and the other passengers symbolizes a connection between different lives, bridging the gap between individuals and underscoring the shared human experience.
The mention of a “heavier basket” that the woman couldn’t carry creates a metaphorical weight, symbolizing her burdens and the challenges she faces. Her panic and distress evoke empathy, drawing attention to her immediate struggle and broader systemic issues.
The woman’s plea, “Pas quittez moi a terre,” is translated to “Don’t leave me stranded” and further interpreted as “Don’t leave me on earth.” This complex layering of language reflects the woman’s plea for compassion and underscores her desire for relief from her earthly suffering.
The stanza emphasizes the historical and cultural context behind the woman’s plea, noting that it speaks to both her personal history and the collective history of her people. The interpretation “Don’t leave me the earth (for an inheritance)” adds an economic dimension, suggesting that she seeks respite from a legacy of poverty and deprivation.
The description of the bus filling with “heavy shadows” introduces a metaphor for the burdens that people carry. These shadows, symbolic of pain and struggle, signify the emotional weight that many endure. The idea that these shadows “would not be left on earth” reflects the woman’s plea for a release from suffering.
The closing lines, “Abandonment was something they had grown used to,” encapsulate a sense of resignation and resignation. This poignant statement highlights the unfortunate reality faced by marginalized communities, where abandonment and neglect have become a painful norm.
And I had abandoned them, I knew that there
and never leave her on earth. But the others, too.
In the fifth stanza of Derek Walcott’s poem, the speaker confronts his own privilege and reflects on the contrast between his experiences and those of the marginalized individuals he encounters. Through a contemplative narrative, the stanza delves into themes of guilt, desire, and the complexities of human connections.
The stanza opens with the realization that the speaker had “abandoned them.” This admission reflects the speaker’s acknowledgment of his detachment from the struggles of others, highlighting the theme of privilege. The use of “sitting in the transport, in the sea-quiet dusk” places the speaker in a reflective moment, allowing him to ruminate on his position.
The scene shifts to encompass the environment, with “men hunched in canoes” and “orange lights from the Vigie headland.” These details create a sense of atmosphere and location, grounding the poem’s exploration within a specific setting. The contrast between the speaker’s elevated vantage point and the individuals in canoes underscores the divide between different worlds.
The speaker’s awareness of his own lack of shared experience is emphasized with “I, who could never solidify my shadow to be one of their shadows.” This metaphorical expression conveys the idea that his identity and struggles do not align with those of the marginalized individuals he observes.
The speaker acknowledges his departure, leaving behind the world of “white rum quarrels” and “coal bags.” These references represent the hardships and challenges faced by the marginalized, further underscoring the disparity between their lives and his own.
The stanza shifts to the speaker’s desire for a woman by the window. This romantic yearning juxtaposes his personal desires with the larger themes of abandonment and privilege. His longing for intimacy and connection reveals his yearning to escape his own isolation.
The speaker’s fantasy of the woman involves a “small house by the beach at Gros-Ilet.” This imagery represents an idyllic escape, symbolizing a longing for a shared life away from the complexities of the world.
The detailed imagery of the woman changing into a “smooth white nightie” and lying “beside her by the ring of a brass lamp” adds a sense of intimacy and tenderness. This portrayal contrasts with the challenges faced by the marginalized individuals earlier in the stanza.
The final lines of the stanza, “that I would buy her Benin if she wanted it, and never leave her on earth. But the others, too,” hint at the speaker’s desire to uplift the woman from her struggles and the awareness of a larger responsibility to address the collective plight of marginalized communities.
Because I felt a great love that could bring me to tears,
their consideration, and the polite partings
In the sixth stanza, the speaker’s emotions intensify as he grapples with a mixture of profound love, empathy, and fear of his emotional vulnerability. Through vivid imagery and introspection, the stanza explores themes of emotional connection, empathy, and the struggle between personal feelings and the larger human experience.
The stanza opens with the speaker’s admission of feeling a “great love that could bring me to tears.” This emotion highlights the depth of the speaker’s connection to the woman and the marginalized individuals he encountered earlier. The phrase “great love” underscores the transformative power of emotions.
The image of “a pity that prickled my eyes like a nettle” portrays the intensity of the speaker’s empathy. The comparison to a nettle, known for its stinging properties, conveys a visceral sense of emotional discomfort. This empathy is a central theme of the poem, intertwining with the speaker’s contemplation of beauty and privilege.
The stanza delves into the speaker’s internal conflict as he fears that his emotions might overwhelm him and lead to “sobbing on the public transport.” This fear of vulnerability reflects the tension between his desire to connect with others suffering and his discomfort in expressing his emotions openly.
The presence of the Marley music intensifies the scene’s emotional atmosphere. The combination of the speaker’s emotions, the music, and the shared journey amplifies the sense of collective experience.
The image of “a small boy peering over the shoulders of the driver and me” adds a poignant touch, emphasizing the young boy’s innocent curiosity and his potential to learn from the emotions of the adults.
The description of “lights coming, rush of the road in the country darkness, lamps in the houses on the small hills, and thickets of stars” creates a sensory landscape that amplifies the speaker’s internal turmoil. These details anchor the scene in its physical setting while also adding to the emotional intensity.
The stanza concludes with the speaker’s acknowledgment of his own sense of abandonment. He recognizes that his own privilege has separated him from the struggles of others, and he attributes his emotional state to his understanding of their pain.
The warmth felt on the bus from “their neighbourliness, their consideration, and the polite partings” is both a reflection of the shared journey and an embodiment of the empathy and human connection the speaker feels.
in the light of its headlamps. In the blare,
They went on in their transport, they left me on earth.
In the seventh stanza of Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Light of the World,’ the speaker’s yearning for continuity, intimacy, and belonging becomes poignantly clear. Through vivid sensory details and introspection, the stanza explores themes of impermanence, desire, and the fleeting nature of human connections.
The stanza begins with the description of the transport’s “headlamps,” illuminating the scene. This visual detail contrasts with the emotional intensity of the previous stanza, signaling a shift in focus from internal emotions to external surroundings.
The reference to “blare” and “thud-sobbing music” evokes a sense of noise and chaos, juxtaposing the scene with the more introspective moments. The term “claiming scent that came from their bodies” suggests a kind of ownership and presence, enhancing the sensory experience of the passengers’ shared journey.
The speaker’s desire for continuity and togetherness is evident in the wish for the transport to “continue forever.” This yearning for a perpetual state reflects the speaker’s longing for an uninterrupted connection with the other passengers and the woman he desires.
The speaker’s reluctance for the journey to the end is highlighted by his wish for “no one to descend.” The imagery of the “beams of the lamps” and the “crooked path up to the lit door” captures the act of departing and returning home, signifying both separation and arrival.
The concept of being “guided by fireflies” adds a touch of enchantment, suggesting a desire for a gentle, magical transition between spaces. This imagery contrasts with the mundane reality of arriving at a hotel, emphasizing the allure of the idealized scenario.
The speaker’s desire for the woman’s beauty to “come into the warmth of considerate wood” and the “relieved rattling of enamel plates in the kitchen” convey a longing for intimacy and domesticity. These images symbolize a desire for shared moments of comfort and connection.
The transition to “I came to my stop. Outside the Halcyon Hotel” marks a shift from the speaker’s internal thoughts to his external actions. The reference to the “lounge full of transients like myself” reinforces the transitory nature of the experience, as well as the speaker’s own position as an outsider.
The speaker’s choice to “walk with the surf up the beach” suggests a need for solitary reflection. His decision to “get off the van without saying good night” signifies his reluctance to fully partake in the ritual of farewell.
The stanza concludes with the anticipation that “Good night would be full of inexpressible love.” This phrase encapsulates the profound depth of the speaker’s emotions and desires.
Then, a few yards ahead, the van stopped. A man
but this thing I have called ‘The Light of the World.’
In the final stanza, stanza eight, of Derek Walcott’s poem ‘The Light of the World,’ the poem concludes with a powerful moment that encapsulates the speaker’s realization and transformation. This stanza serves as a culmination of the themes and emotions explored throughout the poem, highlighting the connections between individuals, the significance of shared experiences, and the recognition of one’s own limitations.
The stanza begins with the abrupt halt of the van, creating a sense of interruption and suspension. The van’s stop is symbolic of the end of the speaker’s introspective journey and a return to external reality.
The man shouting the speaker’s name from the transport window marks a sudden reconnection with the other passengers. This moment underscores the idea that despite individual journeys, the speaker is part of a collective experience.
The speaker’s response to the man’s call is to “walk up towards him.” This physical movement is a manifestation of the speaker’s willingness to engage with others, marking a departure from his earlier feelings of detachment.
The man holds out “a pack of cigarettes,” which had dropped from the speaker’s pocket. This action highlights the theme of shared humanity and the interconnectedness of individuals. The act of returning the cigarettes is symbolic of reciprocity and underscores the idea that small gestures can bridge gaps between people.
The speaker’s reaction of turning away and “hiding my tears” speaks to the depth of his emotions and his vulnerability. This moment of emotional exposure symbolizes the culmination of the speaker’s internal journey, a realization of his own emotional capacity.
The statement “There was nothing they wanted, nothing I could give them but this thing I have called ‘The Light of the World'” encapsulates the transformative realization the speaker has undergone. The “Light of the World” is a metaphor for the speaker’s heightened awareness, empathy, and understanding of the shared human experience.
Through this recognition, the speaker understands that what matters most is not material gifts but the emotional connection forged through empathy and acknowledgment of shared struggles. The final lines echo the poem’s title, emphasizing the central theme of beauty, transcendence, and the profound impact of human connections.
Essentially, ‘The Light of the World‘ brings the poem to a poignant close, underscoring the transformation of the speaker’s perspective. Through the encounter with the man and the return of the dropped cigarettes, Derek Walcott portrays the power of shared experiences, empathy, and the meaningful connections that bridge the gaps between individuals. The stanza resonates with the poem’s overarching themes of empathy, vulnerability, and the universal human experience.
The mood oscillates between melancholic reflection, moments of yearning, and a somber awareness of the disparities in privilege and suffering, evoking a complex blend of emotions that tug at the heartstrings of the reader.
The poem triggers feelings of empathy, nostalgia, and a deep contemplation of the complexities of human experiences, invoking a sense of both connection and separation.
Those who enjoyed this poem by Derek Walcott may also wish to explore the following other poems:
- ‘A light exists in spring’ by Emily Dickinson – is about the light in spring that illuminates its surroundings. Though this poem is about nature, it has a deep religious connotation that science cannot explain.
- ‘A jag of lightning’ by Matsuo Bashō – is a beautiful and interesting poem that describes lightning and a heron’s scream.
- ‘California Dreaming’ by Charles Wright – describes how Californians are similar to another evolution of people from the East.