17 pages 34 minutes read

Derek Walcott

A Careful Passion

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally published in Derek Walcott’s 1962 collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, “A Careful Passion,” examines a final rendezvous between two lovers as they gather at the Cruise Inn on an unspecified Caribbean island. The six stanza, 47-line poem employs iambic pentameter, or five-beat lines, and makes prodigious use of end rhyme, although the rhyme does not follow a set pattern. Employing repetition and cycles of phrases and images, Walcott conveys the breakdown of an extramarital relationship, from the perspective of the unmarried man involved with a married woman. The man’s reactions to the breakup are ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous, alluding to his own difficulties with love.

An early poem in Walcott’s canon, “A Careful Passion” displays his early love of formal poetic meters and structures (poets like T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare were early influences), and he situates the work in the Caribbean landscape that would become central to much of his writing.

Poet Biography

Derek Walcott was born in 1930, in Castries, Saint Lucia, to a teacher and a civil servant. Descendants of African, English, and Dutch ancestors, Walcott and his siblings grew up under the complicated colonial heritage of their home country, a complexity that would later inform Walcott’s writing.

Walcott expressed an interest in poetry and language at an early age, composing and publishing a poem in his local paper at the age of 14, and printing and distributing his first collection of poems at 19. He went on to study at the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, and upon graduation moved to Trinidad, where he worked in journalism and teaching and helped to establish a theater company. During this time, he continued to write poetry and published his first major collection in 1962, In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, earning critical acclaim. The poems simultaneously celebrated Caribbean culture and life and examined the negative impact of colonialism on the region.

In subsequent years, Walcott continued to teach and publish poems and plays. He took a teaching job at Boston University in the 1980s, where he also founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theater. In 1981 he received a MacArthur “Genius” grant. In 1990, Walcott published Omeros, one of his most critically acclaimed works. The epic poem recasts the Trojan War in a Caribbean locale. Two years later, in 1992, Walcott won the Nobel Prize in literature, as the committee praised his “poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment” (“Derek Walcott.” Poetry Foundation).

Walcott published several poetry collections throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), The Prodigal (2004), Selected Poems (2007), White Egrets (2010), and Morning, Paramin (2016). Over the decades, critics have also lauded his essays and plays; he earned an Obie in 1971 for his play Dream on Monkey Mountain.

Walcott died in 2017, in his home country of Saint Lucia.

Poem Text

Walcott, Derek. “A Careful Passion.” 1962. FSG Work in Progress.


“A Careful Passion” begins with an epigraph from a Jamaican song that draws on the Biblical parable of the wise and foolish builders, the latter of whom built a house on sand and promptly watched it wash away.

The poem’s first stanza places the speaker at the Cruise Inn, which sits “at the city’s edge” (Line 1) and looks down to the sea. The speaker describes the small tables that sit near the water and the “foam-white flowers” (Line 4) that fill the space, along with “Marimba medleys from a local band” (Line 5). The band’s music fills the air with a “gay pace” (Line 6), and the speaker introduces his lover, telling the reader that she sits with him, drumming her hand in time with the music. The speaker is detached; he interprets the music as deadening, and he looks out over the water, watching “an old Greek freighter quitting port” (Line 7).

The speaker continues his description of the landscape in the second stanza, describing the smell of the salt breeze that only presents itself at their current location near the harbor. He thinks of other islands where this isn’t the case and describes how the “green wave spreads on the printless beach” (Line 11). He moves into a description of his lover, thinking of “wet hair and a grape-red mouth” (Line 12) before telling the reader that she sits across from him, wearing her “husband’s ring” (Line 13). She sits idly with him, brushing off flies that land on her, before speaking: “Sometimes I wonder if you’ve lost your speech” (Line 16). The speaker does not reply but rather notes the sound of the gulls flying overhead, describing how “[w]ave after wave of memory silts the mind” (Line 19).

The speaker continues to meditate on the gulls and the scenery before noting, “Hearts learn to die well that have died before” (Line 23). He imagines his “sun puffed carcass […] eyes full of sand” (Line 24) before his lover’s voice interrupts again, saying, “This way is best, before we both get hurt” (Line 26). The speaker describes himself from a distance, claiming to be “featureless, inert” (Line 27). He begins to stroke his lover’s hand, although he is otherwise unmoved by her “weary phrase” (Line 28).

The speaker states, “Better to lie, to swear some decent pledge, / To resurrect the buried heart again” (Lines 30-31), and thus finally speaks aloud, agreeing with the lover that the breakup is for the best, before things become any worse. He reiterates that this part of the statement is true, that “it could be worse” (Line 35), then describes his “self-seeking heart / So desperate for some mirror to believe” (Lines 37-38). He closes the stanza with a description of the lover’s eyes, brightened, perhaps to tears, by the salt wind.

In the final stanza, the speaker walks his lover out to the street at dusk. The poem ends on a note of distance and unhappiness, with an image of the gulls “hunting the water’s edge” (Line 46) as they “[w]heel like our lives, seeking something worth pity” (Line 47).