in A Level, CIE, Poetry

Bellow, you will find a detailed analysis of Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Veranda’. I’ve been teaching Derek Walcott’s poetry recently for the Cambridge / CIE A Level Literature course (9095). Despite trawling through search engines, I’ve found barely any analysis of it anywhere — which is a crying shame because his poetry is so good, but also pretty hard to understand.


If you found this page useful, you can check out our full Walcott poetry analysis course.

For more poetry analysis, including Walcott’s, click this link.


A ghost steps from you, my grandfather’s ghost!

Uprooted from some rainy English shire,

you sought your Roman

End in suicide by fire,

Your mixed son gathered your charred, blackened bones,

in a child’s coffin.

Derek Walcott

Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright; click the following link to read the full poem together with this analysis.

STORY/SUMMARY

This poem is structured thematically in three parts. First, Walcott sees the ghosts of people from the time of the British Empire — colonels, usurers, middlemen, planters. They are described as ‘divisible, but one’, i.e. being distinct people but also an expression of the same place and time. The planters are shown to suffer and be exploited, their ‘tears were marketable gum’.

In the second part, the poet sees his grandfather’s ghost, and the tone changes to be more personal rather than impersonal and mocking/critical. He addresses his grandfather’s ghost as ‘sir’ and ‘sire’, showing respect for his choice to migrate to the West Indies and also for his suicide, which is termed ‘your Roman end’ because in Roman culture it was thought to be a noble form of death.

The final section considers the transition from life into death as also a kind of migration, albeit that of the soul. The poet’s hand is ‘darkening’ as he stretches it out from the veranda to the ghosts, a suggestion that he is ageing and will soon be joining them.

VOICE

The voice is at first a third-person omniscient narrator, describing colonial and historical events almost impersonally, it is a voice which looks out from the veranda of its house and perceives the ghosts of people from the Empire, the way in which they lived and worked at the time.

The tone shifts, becoming more personal after the line ‘A ghost steps from you, my grandfather’s ghost!’ as if the mass of historical figures was once blurry and indistinct, but the speaker is now clearly able to distinguish one of his own family from the other ghosts. We realize at this point that the speaker is Walcott himself, and he is talking about his own grandfather. In this shift, the impersonal colonial history of his land becomes his own personal familial history too. In the same way that the general history becomes his own particular history, those ghosts which are ‘divisible, but one’ disappear and he is left alone with his own grandfather.

THEMES

Colonialism – There is a lot of imagery pertaining to colonialism — ‘planters’, ‘colonels’, ‘the commonwealth’s greenheart’ ‘an Empire in the red’ ‘Victoria’s china seas’ etc. The references blend Caribbean and British identities, demonstrating the interconnectedness of the locations via the British Empire. It’s not all positive, however — some of Walcott’s references are highly critical or ironic; the reference to ‘the commonwealth’s greenheart’ implies the Empire’s obsession with making money and jealousy of other empires, whereas ‘usurers’ keeping ‘an Empire in the red’ suggests that moneylenders and the rapid expansion of the empire meant that it was always in debt, and therefore always under stress and pressure and the false illusion of financial success (‘in the red’ means in debt rather than profit).

Slavery  As with many of Walcott’s poems, he references the horrors of slavery that his culture was forced to endure. In this poem, they are “Planters whose tears were marketable gum, whose voices / scratch the twilight like dried fronds / edged with reflection”. The adjective ‘marketable’ sardonically implies the commodification of humans by the empire, the way in which they were treated as no more than money-making objects. We still feel their pain and suffering embedded in the memory of modern Caribbean people, their voices still cry out through their descendants and encourage us to reflect on the horrors of the past.

Ghosts / Apparitions – Drawing from memory and experience, Walcott conjures ghosts in front of him and assesses them, thinking about the way in which they lived their lives. This gives the poem a haunting quality, as well as making it about spiritual reflection and the afterlife, as well as the legacy that lives leave behind — all of which are common themes in his work.

Memory – As with many poems, Walcott explores the concepts of both personal and historical memory, and how these can be tethered to a particular setting, and how they are not mutually exclusive — the personal for him is wrapped up with the historical. He uses the concept of ‘ghosts’ to explore the spiritual and physical residue that people leave in a place where they once worked and lived.

Death – The poet ponders on the lives and deaths of others, as well as turning finally to face the inevitability of his own death — a fact which he seems to accept. The death of his grandfather, in particular, who we learn committed ‘suicide by fire’, is shown to produce a lot of intense and meaningful life in his descendants, Walcott refers to himself and his father as ‘sparks pitched from [the grandfather’s] burning house’ that have become ‘stars’ in their own right. This suggests symbolically that tragedy, death, and destruction can beget positivity as well, and that the living can commemorate the dead and honor their memory, as well as turning their suffering into art or other positive expressions.

Race – As with much of Walcott’s poetry, issues of race are dealt with in a complex fashion — he shows disdain for the way in which colonisers and merchants exploited his land and its people (most of whom were displaced and transported there as slaves from Africa). At the same time, he shows an appreciation for his British grandfather’s decision to emigrate to Barbados and to have a ‘mixed son’, an emblem of the harmonizing of two cultures.

FORM/STRUCTURE

‘the sunset furled /round the last post’ – enjambment creates the impression of a flag furling / curling around a post. This image evokes several concepts at once — a flag curling around a flagpole, the sun dying at the end of the day, which in itself could be a metaphor for the fall of Empire.

Vers libre/free verse – the poem has no regularity to either the structure or line length and no formal rhyme scheme. The use of vers libre encourages the impression that the poet is surrounded with an overflow of emotions, images and memories from his personal and historical past, it perhaps imitates the natural way in which these memories come flooding back to us — a similar technique is used by modernist poets, whom Walcott loved.

“You sought your Roman end // In suicide by fire” – the enjambment here creates an abrupt pause yet link between two stanzas, to convey the shock of Walcott’s grandfather’s suicide, and perhaps the gap between life and death. The metaphor and euphemism ‘your Roman end’ implies that the grandfather’s death was honourable in some ways and that he perceived it as a noble and necessary act, as Romans famously committed suicide, not because of depression but to maintain or regain their honour.

Line length – some lines are exceptionally short (‘Sire”) or exceptionally long, creating a feeling of instability within the poem, sometimes extending an image far like the edge of a veranda on a house and at others presenting an abrupt shift that jolts the reader and makes them pay attention.

LANGUAGE

The title ‘Veranda’ is significant, and it’s repeated at the end of the poem to present a lasting image. It perhaps signifies the idea of liminality, of the boundary between the world of the living and the dead. A veranda is the edge part that sticks out of a house under the eaves (a first-floor roof), so we can view it as a space between the house (representing the world of the living) and the outdoors (representing the world of the dead. Verandas are also common on colonial houses, so architecturally they link to many of Walcott’s key themes.

‘Flamingo colours’ of a fading world-> the quotation is taken from a review of Ronald Bryden’s about a book on India. It refers to the idea that flamingoes are artificially coloured pink when in captivity, due to being fed shrimp — Walcott is perhaps making a statement about the artificial appearance of his country under Colonial rule, suggesting that it will return to its natural state over time once the Empire has faded.

Extended metaphor – the ‘veranda’ serves as an extended metaphor for the boundary between life and death. Walcott stands on the edge of life and thus is able to see out to the ghosts, who are represented as emerging forth from smoke and shadow. The house which is attached to the veranda could therefore be interpreted as representing life itself.

‘Darkening’ – the word has multiple meanings, firstly that it represents the shadow on the poet’s hand as he stretches it out from beyond the light of the veranda. Secondly, it connects to the concept of Africanisation — the notion that Walcott’s skin was much darker than his British grandfather’s. Finally, we can view it as a representation of aging, that Walcott grows darker as his soul ages and gets closer to joining the other ghosts.

“I ripen towards your twilight” > the use of the first person pronoun ‘I’ and second person possessive pronoun ‘your’ establishes a direct connection between the poet and his grandfather, after the more abstract beginning to the poem it becomes highly personal. The metaphor ‘ripen’ suggests that the poet’s life is like a fruit that will eventually rot and fade away, whereas the noun ‘twilight’ symbolically represents a space between light and dark, or between life and death — where Walcott’s ‘ghosts’ are half-visible.

CONTEXT

The poem is dedicated to Ronald Bryden, another Trinidadian.

In the late 19th C (1800s), the Empire was a fading world.

‘Veranda’ was published in 1965, when Walcott was 35 years old. This may seem relatively young to be writing a poem about death and the afterlife, particularly given that Walcott lived until 2017 (died aged 87). However, when considering that his father died aged 31 it makes more sense that Walcott would start to consider his own mortality at such a young age.

Info on Walcott’s grandfather, Charles: “Charles went to St. Lucia in the late eighteen-hundreds to acquire a plantation near Choiseul, on the southwest coast of the island. There he met Christiana Wardrope, an Afro Caribbean woman with whom he had five children; one of them was Warwick, Derek’s father. Although Charles eventually married Christiana, he stayed on the plantation while she lived in Castries with their children.”

Walcott’s grandfathers on both sides were white, whereas his grandmothers were Afro Caribbean. This makes him ‘mixed’ like his father, half of both. In his poetry, he tries to explore and better understand his complex heritage


Thanks for reading! If you found this page useful, you can check out our full Walcott poetry analysis course.