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“Who are you?” demands the blue caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. While willing to consider the question, Alice never comes up with a satisfactory answer. In fact, her dialogue with the caterpillar seems to leave her more confused than ever.
You won’t find any caterpillars in Derek Walcott’s poem “Love After Love,” but you’re bound to run across that same pesky question of identity. Like Alice, you can explore the question by interacting with another character, a “stranger” that you see “in your own mirror”—which is weirder, in its way, than a blue caterpillar. But don’t be scared: this poem isn’t like one of those creepy slumber-party games where you freak yourself out by staring at the mirror until you start seeing monsters. No, this poem is more like a reunion, a homecoming.
Plus, it’s written by a Nobel Prize-winning poet. Derek Walcott is a man with multiple homes, or two homes, or just one, depending on how you look at it. He grew up in St. Lucia, an island in the Caribbean, and still considers himself “a small island boy.” For many years, however, he resided in the United States and now splits his time between Boston and Trinidad. “I don’t think of myself as having two homes,” he says. “I have one home, but two places.”
Walcott’s richly multicultural background provided fertile ground for his poetic imagination, and he has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a poet and playwright. In 1992 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Other honors include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, a Royal Society of Literature Award, and the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. He is, perhaps, best known for poems that explore both the enduring joys of his Caribbean heritage and the undeniable suffering associated with the region’s colonial history.
But you won’t find those themes explicitly addressed in “Love After Love,” a lyric poem published in 1971, early in Walcott’s career. Universal rather than confessional, the poem invites readers to explore their own identities. Of course, once you know the backstory of Walcott’s own multicultural experience, the idea of multiple selves becomes even more intriguing. In the end, though, the ball is in your court. It’s just you and that “stranger” in the mirror, sitting across from each other and wondering, “Who am I, really?”
In the Roman myth of Narcissus, a handsome, proud young man bends over a small pond to take a drink of water. When he sees his reflection in the pond, he becomes so enamored with his own image that he falls in love with it. (Dude, get over yourself!) Unable to tear himself away from his reflected image, he eventually starves to death.
If this tale had a moral, what would it be? Maybe, don’t like yourself too much? Well, judging by the term “narcissism,” which refers to a state of pathological self-centeredness, loving yourself does sound like a bad idea. You might end up immortalized (and not in a good way) like Narcissus or like that guy in Carly Simon’s song (“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”).
If loving yourself is such a bad idea, then why did Derek Walcott write a poem that makes self-love sound like a good thing? In “Love After Love,” the speaker urges the reader to “love again the stranger who was your self,” a stranger who has “loved you all your life.” Did Walcott not get the memo about that unfortunate Narcissus incident? Maybe we should send him an urgent, cautionary tweet. Or, then again, maybe we should consider other ways of thinking about this.
Sometimes our friends call us out for being self-indulgent, but other times they call us out for being too hard on ourselves. “Give yourself a break,” they say. “Take care of yourself,” or “Be good to yourself.” Such comments seem to assume that everybody’s self actually consists of two selves. Hmm, that sounds like a relationship, maybe even a loving relationship.
Narcissus was in love with a shimmering, superficial image that dribbled through his fingers when he tried to grasp it. But in “Love After Love,” Derek Walcott invites us to dive deeper, offering readers an imaginative exercise in self-love. So why not give it a try? Give yourself a break. Take care of yourself. And, you know, don’t forget to pass the bread.
Enjoy this biography and links to other work.
Walcott’s Life, Take Two
Here’s a second biography, with links to Walcott’s writing.
See St. Lucia
If you want to learn more about Walcott’s homeland, this website was put together by the St. Lucia tourist board. Yeah, we think we could handle a visit there.
Whyte on Walcott
This is a reading of the poem, done by British poet David Whyte.
Words with Walcott
Here’s the man himself, reading and discussing his work.
Walcott’s World View
Here he is in an interview with Bill Moyers, discussing the colonial history of his native St. Lucia.
The Mindfulness of “Love After Love”
Dig this discussion of the poem as a meditation on, well, meditation—and mindfulness.
Tom Hiddleston’s Take
That’s right. You can hear Loki from The Avengers read Walcott’s poem.
Behold the Man
There are a lot of patterns happening in this pic.
The Beach Bard
The title says it all.
Walcott at Work
We feel better about our messy desk now.
The Paris Review Interview
How do you know you’ve made it as a writer? The Paris Review interviews you.
“Full Fathom Five”
Check out this New Yorker article on the influence of the sea on Walcott’s work.
Get ‘em all right here.
The Iliad, in the Caribbean—this is considered by many to be Walcott’s crowning achievement.
Poetry is an Island
Dig this doc about Walcott. The scenery alone makes it worth checking out.