Derek Walcott’s ‘XIV’ is a beautiful poem featuring the theme of childhood. This poem is chiefly monotonic yet there is a sense of happiness when readers understand the poet’s mood. Walcott is pleased to remember those glorious days when he along with his twin brother gathered around their mother to listen to stories. Their mother was like the lamplight of their childhood days. Through this poem, Walcott celebrates the glorious past of his life that formed the backbone of his future days.
Explore XIV: With the frenzy of an old snake shedding its skin
‘XIV’ by Derek Walcott is a lyrical poem that provides a glimpse into the poet’s childhood days. Walcott beautifully presents how he revisits the past.
This poem begins in a metaphorical manner. The poet Walcott comparing him to a snake depicts how he looks back on his childhood days. He goes on to present various imagery to paint a picture of his childhood home. The description provides a hint to the financial state of those who lived in that area including the poet’s family as well. Walcott mainly describes how they listened to his mother’s stories in the evening by gathering around the lamplight. Those memories still make him nostalgic, a little bit sad too.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem ‘XIV’ is written in free verse and it is mainly a lyrical poem that taps on the themes of childhood, memory, and togetherness. This poem is structurally a poem without any specific rhyme scheme or meter. The flow depends on the placement of words and internal rhythms. However, readers can find the use of slant rhymes in a few instances. For example, the last three lines of the poem ends with the similar sound, “s”. The poem is mostly composed of the iambic meter with a few variations. But, there is no set metrical pattern in this poem.
The major Literary devices of Walcott’s poem are mentioned below with a few examples.
- Metaphor: The metaphors of this piece include “frenzy of an old snake,” “speckled road,” “eyelids of that mimosa,” “She was the lamplight,” etc.
- Alliteration: “the speckled road, scored with ruts, smelling of mold,” “shadows stood up,” etc.
- Imagery: “speckled road” (visual imagery), “smelling of mold” (olfactory imagery), “eyelids of that mimosa” (sensory imagery), etc.
- Personification: “lamplight glowed through the ribs,” “the eyelids of that mimosa,” etc.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. For example: “twisted on itself and reentered the forest/ where the dasheen leaves thicken and folk stories begin.”
With the frenzy of an old snake shedding its skin,
where the dasheen leaves thicken and folk stories begin.
Derek Walcott’s ‘XIV’ begins metaphorically. Walcott presents an image of an old snake that sheds its old skin and renews its journey. Here, the “old snake” is a metaphor for the poet’s older self. He feels rejuvenated like the new-skinned snake whenever he revisits the speckled road.
The road is scored with ruts or long deep tracks by repetitive movement. This road is none other than the memory lane on which the poetic person often takes a leisurely stroll. While walking he can smell the scent of “mold”. It is another metaphor for old memories. Through the use of such imagery, Walcott adds a flavor of oldness to these lines.
The road twists at a certain distance and reenters the forest. This “forest” is a metaphor for the memories related to the poet’s childhood. The dasheen leaves thicken as a traveler enters the forest. Here, “dasheen” is a West Indian term for a tropical plant with large leaves.
The speaker informs readers that the forest is the place where folk stories begin. It can be a reference to the stories that the poet’s mother usually told them at night. Besides, it can also be a reference to the folk stories of Walcott’s native land that bear the mark of his cultural identity. Thus, the “forest” is a symbol of cultural heritage.
Sunset would threaten us as we climbed closer
called Ti-Marie; then — lucent as paper lanterns,
From this section, Walcott’s persona shifts from the preliminary description and directly jumps to the main theme of the poem. The speaker is not alone. It seems he is with his brother and sister. They walked down memory lane. As they climbed closer to their childhood house by the asphalt hill road, old familiar scenes greeted them warmly.
With awe, they savored how the old yam vines wrangled over gutters. There is olfactory imagery in this phrase “the dark reek of moss”. This phrase depicts the smell of moss, grown in the damp corners of old houses. In this way, Walcott creates a nostalgic mood in the text by using imagery and metaphor.
In the following lines, he presents happenings in the evening. The poetic persona remembers how the inhabitants closed their shutters. Walcott uses a simile to compare the shutters to the “eyelids of mimosa”. Mimosa, also known as Ti-Marie, is another tropical plant that closes its leaves when touched or shaken.
lamplight glowed through the ribs, house after house —
stories she told to my brother and myself.
When the shutters were down in the neighborhood, lamplight glowed through the ribs of the windows. A similar scene could be seen house after house. Walcott’s speaker refers to his mother in the line “there was her own lamp…” She lit the lamp at the “black twist of the path.” The word “black” refers to the darkness during the evening. As the poet is recapitulating his old memories, the images that appear in his mind are dimly lighted or darkish.
In the following line “There’s childhood, and there’s childhood’s aftermath,” Walcott presents a beautiful contrast. The “lamp” lit by her mother is a symbol of his glorious childhood days. While the darkness outside projects the “childhood’s aftermath”.
His mother began to remember the stories which she had to tell her children. At that time, fireflies entered their room and the sound of pipe water banging in kerosene tins created a sense of harmony in his mind. The sound was mechanical yet it makes him remember the days of his childhood.
Her leaves were the libraries of the Caribbean.
still joined in one shadow, indivisible twins.
In the last section of Walcott’s ‘XIV,’ readers can find how the speaker glorifies his mother’s knowledge of stories. She is like a book whose leaves were the “libraries of the Caribbean.” It means she knew a huge variety of folk stories. The speaker feels lucky to remember those “fragrant origins,” a metaphorical reference to his childhood.
Their mother referred to as “Sidone”, had a magnificent head. It means she had a tremendous memory. Her voice was so emotive and magical that it could even infuse life into the characters of her story. That’s why the speaker says that the “shadows stood up and walked.” And her voice traveled to his shelves.
In the following lines, Walcott compares his mother to the “lamplight”. “Two mesmerized boys” (Walcott and his twin brother) stared at her when she told them stories. During those times, they were so closely tied to each other that the poet says they were like “one shadow” and “indivisible twins”.
The poem ‘XIV’ was published in the collection of Derek Walcott’s poems “Midsummer” in 1984. According to Adam Kirsch, “Midsummer” is Walcott’s best book. This poem ‘XIV’ taps on the themes of childhood and memory. Walcott had a twin brother Roderick Walcott. Their mother was a teacher and a lover of arts. She recited poetry as well as told stories to her children. Their father died when Walcott and Roderick were only one year old. They were raised by their mother. In this poem, Walcott shares one of the memories associated with his mother.
Derek Walcott’s ‘XIV’ was published in 1984 in his poetry collection “Midsummer”.
The main themes of ‘XIV’ are childhood, memory, and the mother and son relationship.
The tone of this piece is somber, nostalgic, emotive, and happy.
In this line, the poet compares her mother to a book. She knew so many stories that she is compared to the “libraries of the Caribbean”.
The “dasheen leaves thicken and folk stories” begin in the forest. It is a metaphorical reference to the memories of his childhood.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Derek Walcott’s poem ‘XIV’.
- ‘In Memory of My Mother’ by Patrick Kavanagh – This poem reflects on the happy memories Kavanagh has of his mother after her passion. Explore more Patrick Kavanagh poems.
- ‘Nick and the Candlestick’ by Sylvia Plath – It’s one of the best-known poems of Sylvia Plath. This poem describes how a speaker cares for her child and what the experience means to her. Read more Sylvia Plath poems.
- ‘I Remember, I Remember’ by Philip Larkin – It’s one of the popular Philip Larkin poems. This poem contains a speaker’s thoughts about his home and his idealized ejaculations on childhood. Explore more Philip Larkin poems.
- ‘My Lost Youth’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – This lyric poem describes how the poet misses the days of his youth. Read more Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems.