Below, you’ll find part of an analysis of the poem Nearing Forty by Derek Walcott.
Includes a breakdown of the stanzas, an insight into the speaker + voice of the poem, and an exploration of the themes and deeper meanings. This is only a quick overview to help you get to grips with the poem; you can access a full in-depth breakdown of the poem below.
Nearing Forty by Derek Walcott
“Insomniac since four, hearing this narrow,
rigidly metred, early-rising rain
recounting, as its coolness numbs the marrow,
that I am nearing forty, …”
(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright)
Having been an insomniac since age four, I am sitting in bed and listening to this narrow, regular patterned, early-rising rain and remembering, as the coolness of the rain chills me to the bone, that I am nearly forty years old – nearer to the point where I will have weak vision that thickens and my eyes frost over with cataracts, nearer to the day when I will judge my own work by the bleak modesty of middle age – I will judge my previous poetry as a ‘false dawn’, something that seemed brilliant but turned out to be underwhelming, fireless and average, which would be fair because your life bled for the household truth, the style that goes beyond metaphor and is, however miserable it may be, similar to simple, shining lines, in pages stretched out plain as a white bed sheet under a rainspout; glad for the spark of occasional insight, you who used to think that ambition was a blazing meteor, will fumble a damp match and, smiling, make do instead with the dry wheezing of a dented kettle, for occasional thoughts of genius that and vision that is smaller than the gap between slats on a window blind, then, watching your leaves thin (the amount of poetry you write growing smaller), recall how deeply the seed of great cynicism plants itself – how you start to no longer trust others or believe in yourself – how this seed tells our seasons by the year’s rain which, when we were young and fresh at school, we’d call typical for the type of rainfall we got in the region; or you will get up and start writing lines of poems with a sadder joy (less enthusiasm) but steadier elation (more consistent happiness), until the night when you can finally sleep well, measuring how imagination starts to fade away, typical as anyone who works as a water clerk that weighs the force of lightly falling rain which, as it is controlled by the new moon, works very well even when it seems to cry.
The speaker of the poem is Walcott himself; it seems as though the inspiration for this poem came to him in the middle of the night when he was lying awake with insomnia and listening to the rain pattering outside his window. It takes the form of a lyric poem, not expressing a story but instead a thought process or idea – in this case, the subject is ageing and ambition, Walcott dwells upon whether, as he approaches middle age, he has already written his best poetry and his career will go downhill from this point (interestingly, it didn’t – he became increasingly famous and prominent throughout his life, winning a number of important prizes and becoming a lecturer at several universities as well as continuing to publish acclaimed collections of poems).
Shift to direct address – the poem opens with no discernible narrative voice, using continuous verbs (‘hearing’, ‘recounting’, ‘nearing’) to create a sense of the reader observing everything happening in medias res – in the middle of the action.
Symbolism – ‘searing meteor’ – the use of a meteor to describe the way in which Walcott felt about ambition and his writing career contains several layers of symbolism. Firstly, the searing meteor that hurtles through the Earth’s atmosphere and blazes brightly as it goes is an analogy for how Walcott felt about his own work – taking the importance of poetry very seriously, he saw his life’s purpose in creating poetry, understanding that poems can challenge the way people think about, feel and react to the world around them. Walcott often talks of poetry as a form of light, perhaps a spiritual light, that illuminates our perception and uplifts us in moments of darkness, so by using the image of the meteor he is aligning his own work with the spiritual power of poems that he describes in the work of others. However, a blazing meteor – often known as a shooting star – is also a common literary symbol that is sometimes interpreted as a bad omen or a reminder that fate is stronger than man’s free will. Therefore, the image may also be a demonstration of the pessimistic mood of the poem, as if Walcott believes that no matter how much drive or ambition he has, he will never be as successful as he wants to be in life. It is important to note that his own career was highly successful by the end of his life, so the feelings in this poem may have passed, or otherwise he realised that they were untrue and kept striving for greatness despite this moment of doubt.
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, thoughts and impressions from his memory and current surroundings as he lies awake in the middle of the night listening to the rain.
Tense – the poem uses a mixture of tenses to achieve a complex synthesis between past, present and possible futures. The use of continuous verbs in the opening lines creates a sense of movement and restlessness, as the poet lies awake at night and is suffering from insomnia. There are also modal verbs such as ‘I may judge’ / ‘which would be just’ that create a sense of uncertainty and perhaps anxiety. Later in the poem, Walcott switches to future tense when considering how his life will pan out from this moment forward: ‘You… will fumble a damp match and, smiling, settle/ for the dry wheezing of a dented kettle,/ for vision narrower than a louvre’s gap,’.
Single Stanza – the poem is a single stanza that runs like a train of thought, expressing the way in which the poet’s mind relates to memory and its surroundings. It arguably takes the form of a dramatic monologue, being a little like a speech that is spoken from a character’s point of view. In this sense, the form contrasts with the inactivity of the scene – as the poet is just lying passively awake in his bed and contemplating his life and career.
Opening – ‘Insomniac since four, hearing this narrow, /rigidly metred, early-rising rain
/ recounting, as its coolness numbs the marrow, /that I am nearing forty,’ – the poem opens with the noun ‘insomniac’, a term that the speaker applies to himself, telling us that he has had trouble sleeping since he was four years old, and now he is ‘nearing forty’. This relates to the deeper theme of psychology and perhaps mental health, building a picture of the speaker as a man with an inquisitive, restless mind and perhaps an overactive imagination. The rolling ‘r’ sounds of the phrase ‘early-rising rain / recounting’ create a regular rhythm to the line that imitates the sound of the rain drumming outside the speaker’s window.
Caesura – The poem is a single sentence from start to finish, giving it the appearance of stream-of-consciousness writing, which seeks to capture the organic process of thought with all its imperfections and digressions. Within the sentence are multiple clauses separated by commas, some which shift the topic slightly as Walcott blends his memory and future thoughts with the present moment. A few times, a caesura is used to break up the line of thought, creating a longer pause, such as in the following lines:
… your life bled for
the household truth, the style past metaphor
that finds its parallel however wretched
in simple, shining lines, in pages stretched
plain as a bleaching bedsheet under a guttering
rainspout; glad for the sputter
of occasional insight,
Here, the use of the semicolon creates a caesura for the first time in the poem, forcing the reader to pay close attention to the line. The line of thought is self-deprecating in tone as Walcott criticises his ability to reproduce a clever poetic style without having much true ‘insight’ or genius, as all the great writers have. The phrase ‘glad for the sputter/of occasional insight’ is itself a kind of sputter – it is blurted out after the semicolon almost as if he is reluctant to admit it yet also compelled to be brutally honest.
Thanks for reading! To read the full analysis of this poem, including a breakdown of the story and meaning, click here.