In Ordinary Heroes, author Scott Turow asks, “Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?” If you picture a scale with “I’m a star” at one end and “I’m a loser” at the other end, most people’s stories probably cluster somewhere in the middle. In “Love After Love” Walcott explores the theme of identity by telling a story about a meeting between you and yourself. It’s a positive story, with smiles and love and food, but we’re not told what you and yourself end up telling each other. Walcott leaves that up to you, the reader, to imagine.
“Love After Love” is about reconnecting with yourself after a bad break-up. We can really lose ourselves in someone else, and that can be a pretty unhealthy experience (not to mention super-confusing).
This poem’s message is that “you” are the most important person in your life. Without self-love, you can’t love anyone else. (So go on and give yourself a big hug today.)
Even though we routinely quantify time—measuring out our lives in hours, minutes, and seconds (or, in the case of J. Alfred Prufrock, coffee spoons)—perceptions of time are highly subjective. The next release of Game of Thrones seems to take forever, whereas the day of your math midterm arrives way too soon. Memory, too, is pliable, shaped by our thoughts and emotions. One bad experience, for example, can loom large in memory, distorting your view of the past. The passage of time is an important theme in “Love After Love,” as the speaker invites you to take a walk down memory lane, encouraging you to greet your past self with gratitude and compassion rather than criticism or rejection.
The speaker is able to predict “your” future, because they speak from personal experience—and there’s no greater teacher.
The poem’s most important lesson is to be in the moment. Ignore the past; don’t sweat the future. Be here now in order to be happiest in life.
“All you need is love,” sing the Beatles. As a stickler for detail, we might add that you also need deep-dish pepperoni pizza and cappuccino-chip ice cream. But as always, the Beatles have a point: every human being yearns for love. Just ask that squirrely guy who invented e-Harmony. If everyone just wants to be loved, you might wonder why so many relationships go awry, why so many people end up looking for love in all the wrong places. Maybe it’s because, at the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself. If you and yourself aren’t getting along, you’re apt to have trouble with other people, too.
This poem wants us all to know that there is no love without self-love.
Actually, it’s the other way around: the only way to truly love yourself (according this poem) is to love another first. To put it another way: self-love is the egg; love of others is the chicken.
There’s “more than meets the eye” to this poem. Back in the ‘80s, that was the tag-line for the original Transformers cartoon, and the same can be said here. The “you” staring back in the mirror is not that same old person you see every day. In this case, it’s a long, lost “stranger,” someone whom you’ve not connected with in a long time. Getting back to loving yourself is the ultimate transformation in this poem (even more amazing than Grimlock, who was pretty cool in his day).
Love is the ultimate transformative experience. This poem shows us that love changes us, both for the better and at times for the worse.
No transformation or growth is possible without hardship. If everything were hunky-dory in “your” life, our speaker would have no advice to give.