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.
Diane Von Furstenberg once said, “You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.” The advice seems simple and logical enough. But how many of us actually find comfort in being alone? How many of us can safely say that we are whole and happy, just as we are, outside of a relationship?
Self-love, for so long, has been regarded as a negative trait associated with self-absorption and selfishness. For centuries, the idea of loving someone has meant an emptying of one’s self, a relinquishment of the ego. Society has drilled in us the idea that the highest form of love is one that is rooted in self-denial and sacrifice.
But the conversation is changing. Nowadays, mental health and productivity experts are extolling self-care and self-acceptance, both of which are necessary aspects of loving oneself, as being integral to a person’s growth and well-being. While compromise, compassion, and respect are still considered as cornerstones to a successful relationship, it is just as important for a person to retain a healthy sense of self.
Loving someone should never mean losing one’s entire self in the process. For when that love is gone and past, as most loves tend to go, if one has given up everything in pursuit of that fleeting romance—however sweet or long or passion-filled it may have been—what then is left for the brokenhearted?
Today’s featured poem, Love After Love by Derek Walcott, aims to answer that question. Now, I first stumbled upon this gem while doing research for a 2017 post on The Most Romantic Poems of All Time. Suffice to say, it’s been one of my favorite poems ever since.
First seen in Walcott’s 1976 poetry collection, Sea Grapes, Love After Love is a poem that stays true to its title. It talks about the love that you find at the end of a relationship. It reminds you of the importance of loving and accepting your self—the person so worthy of your love, which you have forgotten while in pursuit of the love of another. Through gentle instruction, it reassures the reader that however bad things may get, however broken your heart may be, things will be okay. You will be whole again.
Written in free verse and following the natural cadence of speech, the poem eschews traditional structure and rhyme. It opts, instead, to present its message of self-acceptance and recognition through the simple but effective imagery of coming home and ‘feasting on one’s life.’
Love After Love also puts emphasis on certain areas of the work through clever line breaks, which force the reader to stop and ruminate on the layers of meaning found in the text. By using a gentle and advising tone, Walcott walks the reader through the process of finding one’s ‘forgotten self.’
The poem begins with the image of a homecoming. Now, we’re all familiar with the saying, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ This idea of a return to one’s roots and an acceptance and appreciation of one’s past is a concept frequently used in literature, music, and film. But in Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, this homecoming is a metaphor used to represent rediscovering one’s self.
Walcott begins the poem with the line, ‘The time will come,’ as if to acknowledge that this self-rediscovery isn’t going to be a quick process. But the use of the word elation, coupled with the final line where ‘each will smile at the other’s welcome,’ reassures the reader that however long this process may take, ultimately, it’s one that will yield a positive and a necessary reunion.
Throughout the work, Walcott also uses the future tense will, expressing a solid certainty in his words. ‘The time will come,’ ‘You will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door,’ and most tellingly, ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self.’ (Notice the break between your and self—once again an emphasis of how we tend to forget ourselves when in a relationship with another.)
In the second stanza, the persona instructs the reader to ‘sit and eat.’ He urges the reader to ‘Give wine,’ and ‘Give bread,’ as if to partake in some eucharistic meal with and of one’s self. Now, the Eucharist or the Holy Communion is a Christian sacrament that hearkens back to the Last Supper where Jesus had instructed his apostles to eat bread and drink wine, symbols of the body and blood that He would give up for mankind.
Now, while Walcott may not have been referring to Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice in these lines, what he is asking the reader to do is to partake in himself/herself. To take in one’s self and be whole again. To solidify this point, he follows this verse with, ‘Give back your heart/ to itself, to the stranger who has loved you.”
By the third stanza, Walcott drives the point home of how this stranger, one’s forgotten self, is also deserving of the reader’s love and care. For the stranger is one ‘who has loved you/ all your life, whom you ignored for another.’ This stranger is the one that knows the reader ‘by heart.’
These simple but comforting words are there to remind its readers that no matter how alone, unloved, or broken we may feel, we are whole and loved. We must only remember to accept and love ourselves too. And while this poem may have been written for people still recovering from a bad break up, I find that it’s one that applies to those of us who are in loving relationships too. It’s a reminder to love and love freely, and yes, love completely, but not to the degree that you lose all sense of self in the process.
And lastly, as if the previous lines weren’t enough to act as the light at the end of a long tunnel, Walcott continues to bring a dose of positivity to one’s experiences—no matter how harrowing they may have seemed at their onset and immediate aftermath. The persona tells the reader to ‘Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,/ the photographs, the desperate notes.’ This is an invitation to remember, to accept, and to appreciate all the moments of one’s life. For as heartbreaking as some of these memories may be, these moments are what makes us who we are. These are what will allow us to finally, peel our own images from the mirror, to accept ourselves as we are and become whole again.
As a parting message, Love After Love leaves us with the immortal line—“Sit. Feast on your life.” An unspoken reassurance that yours is a life worth loving and celebrating.