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Analysis of Poem "Love After Love" by Derek Walcott

Updated on April 16, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Derek Walcott
Derek Walcott | Source

Derek Walcott and Love After Love

Love After Love is an unusual love poem which concentrates on loving the self, the inner self, following the break down of a relationship. It's main theme is that of becoming whole again through self-recognition, a kind of healing that works by self-conscious invitation.

Being in a loving relationship can be a wonderfully thrilling experience. Learning to love another person can lead to a rare fulfilment but when things don't turn out for the good, when love dies, some people can be devastated when the relationship ends, for whatever reason.

  • Love After Love gives the reader a direct message: Do not worry, you will be able to love your self again. Having put so much of yourself into the relationship, doing things for the other person, expressing selfless love, it's only natural you feel incapable. But persevere, love for you will return.

First published in 1976 in the book Sea Grapes this poem has become a popular choice for self-help groups and workshop leaders who use it to help facilitate positive change in those who have lost self-esteem and confidence.

The poet himself acknowledged that 'the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery' so the cycle becomes complete when you consider that the poet's own experience comes through in the poem which is then used to shine light on other people's darker experiences.

Love After Love is a modern poem yet was inspired by a poem published in 1633. George Herbert's Love (III), a religious poem, is all about accepting love and ends with the lines:

"You must sit down," says Love,"and taste my meat."/ So I did sit and eat.

The basic message is that each and every individual is of value and can learn to accept and nurture that part of the psyche which is estranged. Facing up to the challenge isn't easy but it is possible to love oneself again.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Analysis of Love After Love - Stanza by Stanza

Love After Love is a poem that instructs, gently, and reassures. With no set rhyme scheme or meter (metre in British English), the poem is a loose structure pinned with occasional short lines and single words. It takes its time, the subtle caesura (natural and punctuated breaks or pauses) placed for the reader to ponder on.

From the outset the suggestion is that the individual will start to acknowledge an inner self and the need for a kind of reconciliation between the two parts, a rediscovered love.

What has been a split psyche can become whole again.

First Stanza

Formed out of a long sentence that tails off with a comma into the second stanza, this first is an accumulation of reassuring statement, aimed personally at the reader and more specifically at those who know through their own experiences.

The lines grow in length, repetition helping to reinforce the idea that you will be ok in the long run, you'll become aware of the need for self-love and a positive outlook. Each time you get home and stand before your door, each time you see yourself in the mirror this feeling will grow, just like the stanza...

Second Stanza

You may even start to talk to yourself again, inside. The message is to sit. The purpose is to eat. This could come as a bit of a surprise, the imperative Eat. Why eat? With yourself?

Well, if you're eating you have an appetite and that means more positive energy, it means an act of communion (religious as well as secular) can take place and that in itself is a vital start, a practical step towards loving oneself.

Note the mention of the stranger in line seven, underlining the idea of a split in the psyche - and the reassuring tone of the speaker who insists that this stranger will be loved again. The stranger who was your self but who has been neglected.

The wine and bread are taken from the Christian communion (they symbolise the blood and body of Christ) but are here meant to convey the humanity involved in this process rather than any divinity. The syntax is unusual, broken up by full stops, end stops as the imperative comes to the fore.

All through this stanza is an emphasis on the stranger, the metaphorical stranger, that part of every individual who unconditionally loves but who, through time has lost heart.

Third Stanza/Fourth Stanza

Enjambment carries the reader from second to third and continues to focus on the stranger, that side of the psyche who during the relationship suffered, but still is the one who knows best.

And in line twelve the first mention of a practical step towards finally ending the heartache and estrangement. Remove love letters. Remove photos. Remove notes. Presumably they have to be destroyed or kept out of sight before a healing can be reached.

That use of the word peel in the final stanza gives an added significance - not take down your own image but peel, slowly and surely, unseal yourself before you can at last sit and finish off the wine and bread in a suitable manner. Don't eat the food, feast on it. You deserve it.

More Analysis of Love After Love - Tone, Language, Imagery

Love After Love is a short, free verse poem of 4 stanzas, making a total of 15 varied length lines. The rather loose structure overall reflects the breaking down of former barriers, a theme within the poem, which focuses on new found freedom to love oneself following a relationship breakup.

Tone

The tone is gentle, conciliatory and instructive. The speaker is reassuring the reader throughout that all will be well in the end, it's a matter of time and willingness to accept. But some actions will have to be taken which is why the imperatives are used in some lines.

Imagery

The images are those of an individual entering, opening a door of a house and facing their own image in a mirror. This is a positive visual, there are smiles and even some joy.

There is an instruction - to eat - at a table, in the kitchen? This is the scene the reader is encouraged to build: a quietly reflective person who is now beginning to show signs of a new life, expressing positive vibes through smiles and a renewed appetite for life.

Once the paraphernalia surrounding the lost love, all the letters and what have you, are finally removed, then the self-acceptance can be truly experienced.

The mirrors are an obvious pointer towards reflection and recognition.

Language/Diction

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the language used is that of tenses: the poem covers the past, present and future.

The first line:

The time will come (future)

and line ten:

all your life, whom you ignored (past)

then line twelve + all of stanza 4:

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, (present)

  • This is underpinned by repetition:

The time will/you will/each will......Give wine. Give bread. Give back.....sit here/Sit/

The imperative suggests instruction and command, each monosyllabic word contrasting with the longer lines:

Eat.

Give wine. Give bread.

Sit. Feast on your life.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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