The music of “Love After Love” is subtle, rather than flashy. For example, the poem contains no rhyming words; however, the absence of rhyme is more than made up for by the poet’s skillful use of word repetition, alliteration (repetition of initial consonant sounds), and assonance (repeated vowel sounds). In this way, Walcott subtly weaves together sound and meaning in the poem.
Even the title makes clever use of word repetition. By repeating the word “love,” the poet triggers a kind of vibration, a musical echo that resonates throughout the poem, as the word “love” recurs in lines 7, 9, and 12. In line 8, this same technique of word repetition evokes the reverent cadences of scripture (“Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart”). See the “Shout-Outs” section to learn about possible allusions to Christianity in the poem.
Alliteration is another instrument in Walcott’s orchestra. Notice how the W sounds link lines 1 and 2 (“will” and “with”) and reinforce line 5 (“will […] welcome”). Whispering through lines 5, 6, and 7 are the S sounds of “smile,” “say, sit,” “stranger,” and “self.” The reassuring music of these words helps offset the anxiety that we, as readers, may naturally feel at the apparition of our own self emerging from the mirror.
Walcott makes more sparing use of assonance, but in two instances, the technique serves the poet’s thematic as well as musical purposes. In lines 2 and 3, the words “elation” and “greet” both sing out their long E sounds to celebrate the reunion of the two selves. Similarly, in lines 14 and 15, long E sounds pair two deeply symbolic actions (see “Symbols: Eating and Drinking”) associated with the words “peel” and “Feast.”
Of course, all of this sound pairing, echoing, and reflection is totally appropriate to a poem that’s all about how you should relate to… you. “Love After Love” is about reconnecting with your sense of self. And all of these sonic pairs add subtle encouragement to do just that.
As a title, “Love After Love” could be considered both helpful and frustrating. It’s helpful to know that this poem has something to do with love, but the title raises as many questions as it answers.
To begin with, the word “love” has a million different meanings (well, maybe not a million, but you know, a whole bunch). There’s romantic love, and familial love, and love between friends, and love of country, and love of chocolate… you get the idea. So which kind of love does this poem address?
Plus, the title repeats the word “love” and embeds it in a frustratingly ambiguous phrase. The word “after” suggests a sequence of events, but we don’t even know whether the first reference to love has the same meaning as the second. If “love” has the same meaning in both instances, then the phrase “love after love,” like the phrase “time after time,” could imply monotonous repetition.
When you finish reading the poem, you might conclude that the title refers to self-love. But in the third stanza, there’s that puzzling reference to “another”—perhaps a former lover who penned the “love letters” now stored on the bookshelf?
If that is the case, then the title could refer to two different kinds of love, two different experiences of love, one “after” the other. What do you think: does this interpretation imply possible growth or development, as opposed to simple repetition? Or are we way over-thinking this whole title thing?
“Love After Love” describes a strange visit in the indefinite future (“The time will come”), but the visitor comes from the past. The visitor is a “stranger” who “was your self,” who “has loved you all your life.”
The visit appears to take place in a house. There’s a door and a mirror and a bookshelf. Presumably, there are chairs to sit on and a table to hold bread and wine. But it soon becomes clear that this is not a real house; it’s a house of the mind. In this dreamlike environment, the strange visitor steps out of the mirror and joins you for dinner and conversation.
In that sense, the setting can be more accurately described as your own point of view… of yourself. What does that frame through which you see yourself look like? What pictures are there? What ideas does it suggest? The answers to those questions will give you a full sense of what the setting of this poem looks like.
“Love After Love” is written in the second person. The speaker addresses the reader as “you.” Since we are given no information about the speaker’s identity, we can only make inferences, based on the language and tone of the poem.
From the get-go, this speaker comes across as confident, even prophetic, boldly predicting what will happen to “you” (“The time will come”). Ordinarily, this type of person can grate on our nerves (back off, buddy), but the message is about love (aww), so we cut the speaker some slack. All those softly emotional words—”elation,” “smile,” “welcome,” “heart”—seem to suggest a warmly encouraging personality.
Notice, though, how the speaker subtly shifts from the future tense to imperative verbs: “Give,” “Take down,” “peel,” “Sit. Feast.” It could be that this speaker is being a little bit pushy. At the same time, these command reflect a kind of unshakable confidence. The speaker in that light is just a helpful guide with strong convictions, unusual insight, and—most importantly—compelling life advice.
“Love After Love” looks like a pretty easy walk in the woods. Only fifteen lines long, the poem is relatively short and sweet, with simple vocabulary and straightforward sentence structure. Conceptually, however, the poem is a tad more complex. For example, you might want to take a closer look at your hiking companion. Why does he or she look just like you?
As a poet, Derek Walcott is a jack-of-all-trades, writing lyric, narrative, and epic poetry. And did we mention that he’s also a painter and an award-winning playwright? According to fellow poet Joseph Brodsky, Walcott “can be naturalistic, expressionistic, surrealist, imagistic, hermetic, confessional—you name it.” In “Love After Love,” we get a glimpse of the poet’s surrealist side. For some of this other approaches to poetry, check out “Bleecker Street, Summer” or these excerpts from his take on The Iliad, called Omeros.
“Love After Love” is written in free verse; the poet does not use any regular rhyme scheme or traditional metrical pattern. At first glance, the structure of the poem seems pretty bare-bones, but a closer look confirms that these bones are good bones.
For instance, the poem unfolds in series of four, nicely carved stanzas. Ranging from three to five lines long, the stanzas have a pleasing appearance on the page: close enough in length to seem unified, but different enough to add interest.
Mirroring the poem’s short, straightforward structure, the diction of the poem (that is, the poet’s choice of words) is also very simple, including many commonplace, single-syllable words. In fact, the word “elation” is arguably the only example of higher-level vocabulary in the entire poem. Notice how that one memorable word stands out, setting a joyful mood.
In keeping with the conversational, free verse structure of the poem, almost half of the poem’s lines are enjambed, ending with white space instead of a punctuation mark, causing each of the enjambed lines to spill over into the next line. Line 9 even spills over into the next stanza, heightening the emotional description of the “stranger who has loved you/ all your life.” This ample use of enjambment helps vary the rhythm of the poem.
So does the poet’s fondness for caesura—a strong pause within a single line of verse, indicated by the use of a comma or period within the line. Walcott is actually pretty famous for his use of caesurae (that’s how you spell the word when you’re talking about more than one caesura). In “Love After Love” he uses the technique a whopping eleven times. Line 4 displays the use of medial caesura, a strong pause in the middle of the line that splits it into two equal parts. Line 6, an end-stopped line, contains two caesurae, in the form of a comma and a period that precede the final period at the end of the line. Line 9 offers a good example of initial caesura, which occurs near the beginning of the line. Just for fun, see if you can identify the other seven caesurae in the poem.
Walcott is so enamored of the caesura, in fact, that he has no patience for poets who are clumsy in their use of this technique, claiming that a poorly executed caesura is like a galloping horse that collapses and breaks its leg mid-stride. In contrast, Walcott expertly employs word repetition and grammatical parallelism to complement his use of caesura (for example, “at your own door, in your own mirror” in line 4), enhancing the calm, deliberate, rhythmic beauty of the poem.
So, what’s with all the pausing? Is this poem just trying to kill time between its beginning and end? Is it getting paid by the hour or something? Well, when you think about it, the pauses here are not just empty spaces of nothingness. They’re opportunities for reflection. Rather than just continuing to live life as usual, this poem instructs its reader to step back, reassess, and recalibrate. There’s a cause for the pause, in other words. The speaker wants us to stop, in order to appreciate ourselves all over again.
Would you rather be a host or a guest? Some people have a natural gift for hospitality, a way of setting guests at ease and making them feel welcome. Other people would much rather be on the receiving end of hospitality. In “Love After Love,” you don’t have to choose between being the host or the guest: you get to play both roles. And both of you are looking pretty pleased about the arrangement. In the context of the poem, this visit with yourself could be viewed as an extended metaphor. What message do you suppose Walcott wants to convey through this metaphorical visit with yourself?
Where would we be without mirrors? A lot of the time, we’d probably be walking around with spinach stuck between our teeth—not a pretty picture. Mirrors are all about appearances. Just ask the wicked queen in Snow White. But mirrors don’t reflect a person’s character, or do they? Eyes are sometimes referred to as “windows of the soul.” Maybe that’s why, when you look in a mirror, you sometimes get the feeling that someone else is looking back. Ever consider starting a conversation with the person in the mirror? That question seems to be the starting point of “Love After Love,” which uses mirrors to symbolize inner, as well as outer, experience.
During the course of a romantic relationship, people inevitably collect mementoes—physical objects associated with special memories. These sentimental love tokens might include funny valentines, dried flowers pressed between the pages of a favorite book of poetry (by Walcott, perhaps?), or Instagrams of the happy couple frolicking on the beach. “Love After Love” includes images of such mementoes: “love letters,” “photographs,” “desperate notes.” But the identity of this former lover (identified only as “another”) is mysterious, to say the least. Could it be someone you need to get over so you can get back to feeling like your old self again?
“Love After Love” describes an event that could never happen in the real world. In real life, your reflection doesn’t just step out of the mirror and join you for dinner. But hey, inside a poem, or inside your own head, anything can happen. In addition to being fun, imaginative experience can speak to us in ways that rational thought cannot. Bubbling up from the depths of our hearts and minds and spirits, imagined scenes—such as the “feast” in “Love After Love”—can convey symbolic meanings that expand our awareness and understanding.
You’d think that a poem with the title “Love After Love” might include a little bow-chicka-wow-wow, but as it turns out, this poem is squeaky clean, with only a single chaste reference to “love letters.”