Study Guide

Love After Love

Love After Love Summary

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Set in the indefinite future, “Love After Love” focuses on a single, singular event: a visit from “the stranger who was your self.” A mood of “elation” and “love” suffuses the encounter between you and… you. The speaker encourages the two of you(s) to sit and share a meal of bread and wine. Urging you to “take down the love letters […] the photographs, the desperate notes,” the speaker also suggests that you “peel your own image from the mirror” (say what?) and instead “Feast on your life.” Sounds like a tasty proposition to us.

  • Stanza 1

    Line 1

    The time will come

    • “Love After Love” begins with a prediction. Given the poem’s title, you might guess that the prediction has something to do with love, but come on, we’re only in line 1—it’s too soon to say. The prediction is phrased as a simple statement of fact, without any clue about what’s to come.
    • Maybe the speaker will predict something good, like, “The time will come when that bad haircut of yours will be all grown out, and you’ll finally look like a normal human being again.” Then again, maybe the speaker will predict something bad, such as, “The time will come when you’ll regret not studying more for that biology exam.”
    • There’s only one way to find out about this prediction. Read on, Shmoopers…

    Line 2

    when, with elation 

    • Whew, turns out that the prediction is about something good (we were starting to sweat bullets about that bio exam). We can infer that some positive event is pending, because people are evidently happy about it—and not just kind of happy. Whatever will happen is apparently a cause for great joy, or “elation.”

    Lines 3-4

    you will greet yourself arriving
    at your own door, in your own mirror

    • Whoa—anyone see that coming? By the third line of the poem, our speaker has already nailed readers to the wall with the totally unexpected, surreal image of greeting “yourself.” This vision of a second self seems to materialize in two different locations: at the door and in the mirror. 
    • There’s no way you can wriggle out of confronting this bizarre situation head-on, because this poem is not about people in general or the poem’s speaker in particular; this poem is about Y-O-U. Notice how the speaker drives this point home by repeating various forms of the second-person pronoun (“you […] yourself […] your own […] your own”).
    • Even though this situation is way weird, we think that line 4 sounds kind of calm and comforting. A comma divides the line neatly into two halves: each half has the same number of words and the same sentence structure and even some of the same words. The comma creates a mid-line pause known as a caesura. Even though lines 2 and 4 both have commas embedded within the lines, all of the lines so far are enjambed, ending without a punctuation mark. (See our “Form and Meter” section for more on caesura and enjambment.)
    • Speaking of poetic techniques, did you notice that the first four lines of this poem are unrhymed? There’s no regular metrical pattern on display either, so we must be dealing with free verse here.
    • Hopefully, this little digression about poetic technique has given you a moment to recover from the shock of coming face to face with yourself. But now it’s time to face the music, Shmoopers. Gather your courage, and we’ll peek around the corner to see what’s happening in the next line…

    Line 5

    and each will smile at the other’s welcome, 

    • Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? The speaker seems quite sure that you and your other self will be happy to see each other. Speaking of the speaker, we still don’t have any idea who this person is or why this person keeps making prophetic pronouncements. Do you think the speaker really knows what he-she is talking about? Let’s keep reading to see…
  • Stanza 2

    Line 6

    and say, sit here. Eat.

    • Now the speaker seems to be putting words (as well as food) in your mouth. How does the speaker know what you will say in this extraordinary situation? Whether you want to or not, you are now playing the role of host in the unfolding drama narrated by the poem’s speaker. Like all good hosts, you offer your visitor—who also happens to be you—a chair and a snack. Taking advantage of the extra time provided by not one, but two caesurae in this line, you graciously gesture toward the chair and the refreshments.

    Line 7

    You will love again the stranger who was your self. 

    • Ah-ha—here we are, halfway through the poem, and the word “love” finally pops up for the first time since the title. Now, that cheeky speaker is predicting that you will not just tolerate your self as a visitor, but actually “love again” this “stranger who was your self.” (Did you notice how alliteration strengthens the association between “stranger” and “self”? Check out “Sound Check” for more on that.)
    • The past-tense verb “was” reveals that this other self, though in some sense a stranger, is associated with your past. Until now, this apparition of a second self could be viewed as a random visual hallucination, perhaps a mirage created by some trick of the light. But line 7 clearly suggests that your visitor is an image of the person that you used to be, a younger version of yourself. And, at some point in the past, you apparently loved yourself, because the speaker is insisting that you will love that self “again.” What a nice thought. No wonder your two selves greeted one another with a smile back in line 5.
    • Pictured in this way, self-love seems natural and kind, not selfish or conceited. But maybe Narcissus had that same thought when he fell in love with his own reflection (for more on this, see the “Why Should I Care?” section). So we better be careful.

    Lines 8-9

    Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
    to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

    • These lines mark a shift in tone, as the speaker’s voice becomes more urgent and insistent. Notice how the speaker has slipped into imperative mode, issuing instructions rather than making predictions. 
    • And what’s with the bread and wine? Are you and yourself going on a picnic? (If so, we hope to be invited, because this poem is starting to make us hungry.) Bread and wine may also remind you of the ritual of Christian Communion (see “Shout-Outs” for more on this). The short, repetitive statements in line 8 do seem to evoke a kind of ceremonial atmosphere. And the word “heart” has spiritual as well as emotional connotations.
    • But how or why would you want to “give back your heart to itself”? What does that statement even mean?
    • Here’s an idea: if you look carefully at the wording of lines 8 and 9 (“Give back your heart/ to itself, to the stranger who has loved you”), you’ll see that the speaker is equating the words “heart,” “itself,” and “stranger.”
    • In other words, the speaker is urging you to love the stranger. Line 7 already established that this stranger is your past self—a self that you once loved. The new information in line 9 is that the feeling was mutual.
    • Moreover, your past self still loves you and is waiting patiently to be loved “again” by your current self.
    • In short: it’s time to kick back, munch some bread, sip some wine, and start loving yourself again.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 10-11

    all your life, whom you ignored
    for another, who knows you by heart. 

    • Did you notice the white space between lines 9 and 10? That’s more than just a stanza break. Line 9 leaves us hanging, hovering in mid-air for a moment longer than usual. Thanks to this enjambment, we’re able to marvel at the thought that someone out there (or in there?) has loved us for our entire life.
    • That pause gives us (well, you) time to realize something important: at some point in the past, you apparently dropped the ball in terms of self-love. Notice how the word “ignored” is tucked inconspicuously into a relative clause. (Walcott’s syntax is so effortlessly sophisticated that he plays that tricky “whom” card without batting an eye.) Suggesting betrayal, the word “ignored” stands out like a sore thumb (or a wounded heart?) amidst all this gentle murmuring about love.
    • And just why did you stop paying proper attention to your poor little past self? Apparently your attention wandered to someone else, identified only as “another.” It sounds like a love triangle. How shocking! Are restless housewives involved?
    • Before we move on, what’s the deal with the second part of line 11 (after the… wait for it… caesura)? Who is it that “knows you by heart”? Is it your former self, or is it this other person who has just entered the picture? It would make sense that someone who has loved you all your life would know you by heart, so the “who” here may refer to your former self. Still, there’s no way to know for sure yet, so let’s just move along to the next line…

    Line 12

    Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

    • We (you) get another command from the speaker, here. It’s redecorating time. Specifically, you need to take those old love notes down from where you were keeping them. For what purpose, though? Read them? Box them up? Put them in the fireplace and burn them while crying silently into your handkerchief? 
    • More importantly, to whom were these love letters written? We don’t have the details just yet, We’ll have to head down to the next stanza. Just watch out for that enjambment on the way.
  • Stanza 4

    Line 13

    the photographs, the desperate notes,

    • Hmm, the plot thickens. Mementos of a love affair often include sentimental letters and cherished photographs. In this instance, do you think the love affair ended happily or unhappily? The word “desperate” certainly evokes the turmoil that can attend an unhappy break-up.
    • So who was the former lover here? Since this poem only has three characters—you, your past self, and somebody else known only as “another”—the options are pretty limited. It seems pretty unlikely that you would have written love letters to yourself, although personal journals can sometimes include “desperate notes” (for example, “Note to self: never fall for another jerk like that guy who thinks this song is about him”).
    • Recall from way back in line 12 that the speaker is urging you to “take down” the souvenirs of a previous relationship. In this context, does “take down” mean “discard” or just “retrieve”? Does the speaker want you to discard the mementos or reminisce about them? Thus far, the speaker has been advocating for you to love your past self. And there was a tinge of disapproval when the speaker observed how you “ignored” your self in favor of “another.” 
    • Maybe the speaker is suggesting that you need to get over a failed relationship once and for all—move past your disastrous affair with “another” and focus on yourself again. From this point of view, the poem’s title, “Love After Love,” could refer to a rediscovery of healthy self-love following the turmoil of an unhealthy love affair.

    Line 14

    peel your own image from the mirror. 

    • Hold up—why are we back in front of the mirror again? In the first stanza, your former self stepped out of the mirror to greet you. But now some picture of you seems to be plastered on the surface of the mirror. 
    • The implications of this second encounter with the mirror depend, to a large extent, on whether you view this “image” as positive or negative, authentic or false, whether it symbolizes personal growth or stunted development. If the image represents negative, limiting beliefs about yourself (resulting, perhaps, from an unhealthy relationship), then you would do well to peel that image off the mirror and throw it away. If, however, the image reflects a renewal of healthy self-love, then you might want to liberate it by peeling it off the mirror, freeing your true self to join you at the dinner table. (For more about mirrors, check out the “Symbols, Imagery, & Wordplay” section.)

    Lines15

    Sit. Feast on your life. 

    • During the course of analyzing this poem, you’ve worked hard, and you deserve a rest. So, by all means, have a seat. The good news is that the food has arrived. And the menu has expanded beyond bread and wine; now it’s a “feast.”
    • But what does it mean to “feast on your life”? Well, just as food nourishes the body, love nourishes the heart and soul. (For more on food as a symbol, see the “Symbols, Imagery, & Wordplay” section.) Walcott’s poem seems to suggest that self-love, properly understood, is the foundation for all those other kinds of love. 
    • Even if you agree, in theory, with this principle, you still have to figure out how to apply it in your own life.
    • And no one, not even Derek Walcott, can tell you how to love yourself. What the poet can do, however, is lead you down the garden path into the world of your own memory and imagination, where you just might find a beloved stranger waiting for you (psst, that stranger is you).