Nearing Forty | Summary| Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Nearing Forty by Derek Walcott


Nearing Forty by Derek Walcott is a single stanza poem written in first-person narrative. The main themes of this poem are ageing, realisations, fear, cynicism, and acceptance. An important overarching theme of this poem is poetry writing, and poetic ability and style. 

 Walcott often addresses a second person, referring to them as ‘you’ as he directs his words towards them. This person is John Figueroa, Walcott’s friend and fellow poet to whom “Nearing Forty” is dedicated. The poem has thirty-three lines without any full stops until the end – it is a steady flow of musings, making it a free-verse stream of consciousness. It is also important to note that this piece is the delivery of both words to a non-responding addressee and the poet’s internal thoughts- hence, it may also be read as a dramatic monologue. 

Despite the unbreaking flow of lines and lack of punctuation, the poem does not become monotonous or overwhelming. There is no consistent rhyme scheme, but rather one that changes every few lines, creating an interesting rhythm. Walcott employs enjambment, metaphors, personifications and similes to paint a more vivid picture for the readers. Especially since the concept of this poem- ageing, and the changes in poetic ability that come with it- are largely abstract and subjective, such literary devices play a huge role in bringing clarity to the reader. “Nearing Forty” also contains symbolism, irony, comparisons and imagery, which add to the tone and mood of the piece. 

Nearing Forty | Summary

Nearing Forty is written in first-person narrative, addressed by Walcott to his friend John Figueroa, as he nears his forties. He discusses his fears and thoughts about how ageing will affect his poetic abilities and worldview. The poet begins by describing how he has been an insomniac and has had trouble sleeping- since he was four years old. At present, he is listening to the early-morning rain, the drops of which hit the ground in an even pattern. As the coolness of the rain numbs his skin, he thinks about how he is nearing forty. A step closer to having poor eyesight where everything seems hazy and needing thick lenses to see, a step closer to judging his poetic work modestly because of his old age and presenting something passionless and ordinary.

The poet then recalls the themes of his previous works- he spent his life writing household truths. He did not use overtly stylistic elements or decorative metaphors but rather incorporated its parallel through the simplicity and directness of his writing. He wrote on stretches of plain paper, comparing it to a bleaching bedsheet, while the honesty of his words gushed out like a guttering rain spout over it. He was glad for the occasional insight brought to him by literary criticism.

The poet then addresses someone as ‘you’, saying the person who looked at ambition as a “searing meteor”, wide and endless, will stumble and smile at their naivety and innocence. They will settle for less than greatness in their ageing state, now unable to do what they were once capable of, and feeling more cautious about their actions as time passes. Further, their vision may “narrow”, here referring to their mindset. Their perspectives will shrink and they will start to view everything cynically- for example judging the annual rainfall pessimistically, based only on the year-end rain. This reminds him of his school days, where they mistook the word ‘convectional’ rainfall for ‘conventional’- which in this context points out how as one ages, they will become a conventional person.

In the final part of the poem, Walcott offers a more optimistic solution to writing poetry even as one ages, addressing the person as ‘you’ again. He says they can continue their work with less of a spark than before, but a more consistent mature enjoyment. They can do this until the night they can truly sleep, referring to the first line, where the poet reveals himself to be an insomniac- measuring the way imagination dwindles with increasing age. They will become as normal as an ordinary writer- like a conventional water clerk weighing the rain. He compares the seeming weeping of the moon to their present state as they age, wondering if they can continue to work the same way even then.

Nearing Forty | Analysis


Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 1-5

“Insomniac since four, hearing this narrow,

rigidly metered, early-rising rain

recounting, as its coolness numbs the marrow,

that I am nearing forty, nearer the weak

vision thickening to a frosted pane,

The poem begins with the mention that the poet has been an insomniac since he was four, which is important to note, as the element is revisited in the latter half of the poem. Walcott uses auditory imagery to describe the rainfall, which creates a calm yet despondent mood. He mentions that he is about to turn forty, and says that he is closer to declining vision because of old age. He uses the imagery of ice creating frost on the windowpane to describe the hazy effect of blurred eyesight. These first few lines set the mood of the poem and give a glimpse into the poet’s outlook on life.

Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 6-10

“nearer the day when I may judge my work

by the bleak modesty of middle age

as a false dawn, fireless and average,

which would be just, because your life bled for

the household truth, the style past metaphor”

Here, the poet refers to his writing style and previous works. He is afraid of nearing an age where he does not view his work with the same sharp eye as before and instead will view everything rather bleakly. The “false dawn” refers to the faux hope and energy- he is afraid he will regard his writing as passionless and average. He then discusses his previous works, which dealt with “household truths”- that is, truths that were common and known but never often discussed.

Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 11-15

“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,”

Walcott elaborates on the simplicity of his words in his past poems. He never used ornamental metaphors or stylistic features to make his poetry sound a certain way. He wrote “simple, shining lines”- which means he wrote lines that, though direct, truly stood out and spoke to the readers. “Bleached bedsheets” and “guttering rain spout” is imagery, while a comparison is used to describe the vision of the words on a sheet of paper. The “sputter of occasional insight” refers to constructive criticism and literary commentary given by professionals. This implies that in the past, the poet was open to feedback and enjoyed listening to reviews of his work. It is unknown whether he continues to feel the same, but we see from the tone that there has been a change in his mindset as he grows older.

Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 16-20

“you who foresaw

ambition as a searing meteor

will fumble a damp match and, smiling, settle

for the dry wheezing of a dented kettle,

for vision narrower than a louvre’s gap,”

We finally see here the direct address to John Figueroa. From Walcott’s words, we understand that Figueroa saw ambition as a wonderful thing of endless possibilities. “Searing meteor” is a metaphor- a meteor flies high above the clouds and races through the sky. This description shows just how important passion and goals were to Figueroa. However, with old age, this once-firing passion turns into a “damp match”, which is Walcott’s way of observing how age can transform a person’s outlook. The “damp match” and “dented kettle” are also references to age- these are objects which seem to materialize the essence of older age. The word “dented” suggests being worn and may also be a direct symbolism of wrinkles. “Dry wheezing” is once again auditory imagery that indicates the heavier breathing or hoarseness of one’s voice as one ages. Finally, he compares the narrowing vision to a louvre’s gap, which means that one views the world more cynical as one grow older.

Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 21-25

“then, watching your leaves thin, recall how deep

prodigious cynicism plants its seed,

gauges our seasons by this year’s end rain

which, as greenhorns at school, we’d

call conventional for convectional;”

“Watching your leaves thin” is a metaphor for Walcott observing Figueroa’s natural ageing process. It may also symbolise the hair loss that comes with old age, the leaves representing the thinning hair. Walcott continues with the image of plants and greenery to use the metaphor of a seed of cynicism- that is, the beginning of a cynical outlook. The example Walcott uses to describe this is assuming a year’s worth of rain based on the year-end rainfall, but he employs an interesting contrast at the end to underline his point: convectional rainfall is caused by the heating of land, with cooler air above it. Conventional means ordinary and normal. As school students, the poet and his classmates often used to confuse the two words, and ironically, in this situation, Walcott is talking about how age makes one conventional.

Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 26-28

“or you will rise and set your lines to work

with sadder joy but steadier elation,

until the night when you can really sleep,”

Finally, Walcott provides a slight glimmer of realistic hope. He does not act as though there is another solution or a brighter path, but instead suggests ways to accept the situation as it cannot be stopped and make the best out of it. “Sadder joy” is an oxymoron, used to say that while Figueroa may not be as happy with his writing as before, that is not to say he will feel no joy at all. The “steadier elation” refers to maturity and calmness. Rather than boundless energy and outgoing reactions, he may feel his happiness in a more relaxed and consistent manner, which highlights the wisdom that comes with age. And it is this acceptance of the future that leads one to have a restful sleep at night, contrary to the insomnia mentioned in the first line.

Nearing Forty | Analysis, Lines 29-33

“measuring how imagination

ebbs, conventional as any water clerk

who weighs the force of lightly falling rain,

which, as the new moon moves it, does its work

even when it seems to weep.”

At this age, he will be able to measure how imagination dwindles- how one’s creativity is not the same as it was in his youth. Someone who had once been unique can become just as ordinary as anyone else. Here, the comparison is made to a water clerk measuring rain, parallel to the earlier mention of convectional rainfall. The “new moon” symbolises a new phase of one’s life- it is important to note that the moon has phases. Thus, Walcott is connecting the phases of the moon to the phases of life. However, he does not mention that this new phase of life will be a particularly good one. Rather, the poem ends on a despondent note, similar to how it began, with the mention of the moon’s weeping. This implies the reaction to one’s ageing state, as Walcott wonders whether imagination, creativity and writing work even when the moon weeps.





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