In light of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would have a look at a love poem and draw on some of my thoughts from my own heartbreak through my love of literature. Here’s Love after Love by Derek Walcott:
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.
Do not worry, you will be able to love yourself again. This unusual love poem concentrates on self-love when a loving relationship ends and teaches you that must learn to build yourself back up again. On a surface level the poem focuses on a single visit from a stranger who comes to eat, but it also deals with heartbreak and sadness, loss of self-confidence and identity, and a realisation that from an ending, a new beginning can grow.
Love after Love is inspired by George Hebert’s 1633 poem, Love (III), a religious poem all about accepting love in all its forms – love of God, love of nature, love of another and love of yourself. Walcott therefore builds on Hebert’s amorous message, as he acknowledges himself that, “the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery”. This poem therefore is his way of learning from his experiences and shining the light on someone else’s dark moments.
What does the form and structure tell us?
Love after Love is a free verse poem, composed of a quintain, a quatrain and two tercets, with no set rhyme scheme or metre. Instead, Walcott uses subtle caesura and varying length lines to gently instruct and reassure the reader, whilst allowing time to pause and reflect via the punctuation. This loose structure mirrors the fluidity of healing, that there is no one right way of dealing with an end of a relationship. By not conforming to a tight framework, the poem breaks down former barriers of constraint – just like when you begin to allow yourself to heal you may find a newfound freedom within yourself. The poem suggests that what may have broken, can be rebuilt, and built back stronger.
We begin almost in media res, “The time will come”, as memories have already been made, words already said and now it is a chance for the healing process to begin. The trochee, “time” therefore emphasises the importance of allowing yourself space to breathe, that this is an ongoing process that requires work, but it will be worth it in the end. You will “greet yourself” with “elation”, as after all the sadness comes a joy of reconnecting with yourself, who is not a “stranger” anymore. This process will happen at “your own door”, therefore on your own terms. The words “door” and “mirror” suggest a two-way boundary: one way you can go back to the past and the other you can move forward into the future. The poem therefore explains that by stepping forward, through the metaphorical door, you will “smile at the other’s welcome” – you can become whole again.
As the first stanza is formed out of one long sentence, that tails off with a comma into the second stanza, we gain a reassuring accumulation of hope as the lines grow in length, finally pausing at “Eat”. This building of lines therefore helps to reinforce the idea that you will be okay in the long run. Seemingly strangely, the message is to sit. The purpose is to eat. This imperative, “Eat”, echoes the growing appetite to find and love yourself again. As life goes on, nourish yourself and your heart. Due to the relationship’s end you may have lost parts of yourself, and not recognise who you are, but we are reassured that, “you will love again the stranger who was your self”. The repetition of “stranger” in the stanza emphasises the subtle irony, that you were once able to love another stranger, who became an important part of your life; therefore, you can ‘re-acquaint’ yourself with “your self” and learn to love that person again. The fragmented syntax that follows, “Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart” forces you to listen; the repetition and stress of the active verb “Give” mirrors the process of loving oneself. To “give” you must provide yourself with ways to heal and find yourself again.
Enjambment carries us from the second to the third stanza, and the repeated emphasis on the personal pronouns, “you”, “your” is striking in this tercet. Whilst these pronouns as repeated throughout the poem, here we have two in the same line, “all your life, whom you ignored” emphasising the responsibility that you hold over yourself. Only you know how you feel, what works best for you, and you always will, as you are the only one to live with yourself for all of your life. So, whilst you “ignored for another”, your own self was there, “who knows you by heart”. The metaphorical stranger, who unconditionally loves, has through time lost a part of their selves. We then reach the poem’s volta, as instead we are presented with practical steps to deal with the heartbreak, “Take down the love letters from the bookshelf”, (and into the final stanza), “the photographs, the desperate notes”.
The last two lines of the poem might be my favourite, “peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.” The word “peel” especially, that slowly and surely, with time, you must unseal yourself before you can at last sit down and enjoy the “feast”. To “feast”, to celebrate you – the amazing person you were before and still are now. Through self-realisation and self-love, you can find happiness again. The future tense that dominates the poem, “the time will come when”, “you will love again” is replaced by the present tense of, “sit” and “feast” as you progress forward and learn to love yourself again. Don’t forget that between the hello and the goodbye, there was love; but now it is time to move on and appreciate YOU.