18 pages 36 minutes read

Derek Walcott

The Almond Trees

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


Derek Walcott’s “The Almond Trees” (1965) examines the complex dynamic of postmodern Caribbean identity using a deceptively simple scene—a painterly tableau of European sunbathers carelessly lazing about a sunbaked West Indian beach lined by weathered sea-almond trees. The Caribbean culture reflects more than two centuries of colonial occupation by the British and the French as well as the introduction of African slaves. For Walcott, whose ethnic identity was complex (his father was African by descent, his mother Dutch), the beach scene offers the opportunity to ruminate on how contemporary Caribbean identity, shaped unavoidably by the impact of its history of brutal occupation, must fuse those elements of its past with its present if the culture is to find its way to a productive future.

The conception of hybrid identity, reflected in the poem’s innovative use of rhythm and rhyme and its focus on the white-hot fusion heat of that Caribbean sun, gives the poem its tempered optimism. The poem was awarded the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature for poetry and illuminated the difficult question of post-colonial cultural environments and how such nations struggle to reconstruct their identity; Walcott suggests that only through the embrace of cultural fusion can the Caribbean people achieve hope.

Poet Biography

Derek Walcott was born on January 23, 1930 in Castries, the coastal capital of Saint Lucia in the eastern reaches of the West Indies. Walcott’s father, a painter (by profession, a government administrator), died when Walcott was only one. Walcott’s mother, a schoolteacher, introduced Walcott to art and to literature. Surrounded by the intoxicating beauty of his tropical home, Walcott aspired to be a painter. Under his mother’s guidance, Walcott read widely into British literature and experimented with verse, publishing his first poem, an homage to John Milton, when he was only 14.

He attended St. Mary’s College in Saint Lucia for two years before completing his studies in literature and language at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Before he graduated, Walcott, then a schoolteacher, published his first book of poems in 1950 using money borrowed from his mother. The collection struggled for an audience, given Walcott’s sophisticated fusion of European forms with Caribbean themes. On the strength of that collection, however, Walcott was offered a teaching position at Boston University where he taught for than 20 years before accepting a similar post at Columbia University, a peripatetic life that only deepened his cultural and ethnic identity.

Walcott’s verse appeared in prestigious literary magazines until his collection, 1962’s In a Green Night, established him as an important voice in postcolonial literatures. “The Almond Trees” appeared in the 1965 collection The Cast Away, an experimental cycle of poems that investigated Caribbean identity. Walcott’s international reputation was secured with Omeros (1990), an ambitious retelling of the Iliad using the narrative of heroic Caribbean fishermen.

In addition to the 1992 Nobel Prize, Walcott also received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1988), a lifetime achievement award for Commonwealth poets, and the $30,000 Eliot Prize (2007) for the collection White Egrets, a cycle of stark poems about mortality.

On his death at age 87 on March 17, 2017, Walcott received a state funeral on his native Saint Lucia. He was buried in the cemetery of Morne Fortuné in Castries overlooking the harbor that inspired him as a child.

Poem Text

Walcott, Derek. “The Almond Trees.” 1965. Joe Pellegrino.


Reading the poem is like coming upon a beautifully detailed oil painting of a remote tropical beach. The beach is Choc Bay on St. Lucia, near Walcott’s childhood home in Castries. It is a sun-washed stretch of beach bordered by ancient sea-almond trees.

The poem begins “There is nothing here” (Line 1). It is early morning. The sand is cool, the quiet broken only by the soft tumble of the ocean waves. There is, the poet notes scanning the beachline, “no visible history” (Line 5), nothing that might give character to the beach. All that is visible is a stand of ancient sea-almond trees, “twisted, coppery” (Line 7). Conditioned by the weather, their foliage has turned red; their trunks are “bent as metal” (Line 9) from decades of withstanding tropical winds.  The only person on the beach is a grizzled fisherman working the surf with his dog.

By noon, when the sun is at its highest (and hottest) point, the beach is busy with sunbathers, women “toasting their flesh” in “scarves, sunglasses, Pompeian bikinis” (Lines 17-18), all reflecting the fashion styles designed in distant Europe, creating a distance between the bathers and the tropics. They are tourists. The poet compares the reclining sunbathers to “brown Daphnes,” a reference to naiads, sea nymphs from Greek mythology. To his painterly eye, the beach composes itself like an ancient frieze, a kind of broad wall mural, in which the burnished sunbathers and the grove of copper-tinged sea-almond trees are positioned.

The poet notes how the hot tropical climate with it constant “fierce acetylene” air has “singed” (Line 24) the trees’ foliage and bark a dull copper to the point where the trees themselves resemble the rusty hues typical of a weathered barge that has beached, its wooden frame bleached by the constant sun. He cannot help but juxtapose the trees with the sunbathers. The fiercely hot sands do not seem to bother the sunbathers; in fact, “their bodies fiercely shine” (Line 30) despite or perhaps because of the unrelenting heat. They endure “their furnace” (Line 32).

At this point the poet introduces the larger lesson he learns from the juxtaposition of “aged trees and oiled limbs” (Line 33). Despite their evident organic differences—trees vs. people--they share the rusty-brown hue. They have been, in a sense, “welded [together] in one flame” (Line 34). The trees, unlike the pampered tourists, have suffered mightily in getting their burnished color. The poem turns brutal: the trees have been “lashed” raw by tropical storms, coated by briny salt air and then fire-dried by the unrelenting Caribbean sun. This long and brutal history, however, has forged from the stand of trees a kind of community, their fierce and bold coloring like an “enduring sound / they shared together” (Line 41-42). That testimony of their common history, “their grief” (Line 46), “howls seaward” (Line 47), the very pitch revealing the depth of the trees’ history. If the trees could talk, the poet says, they would howl.

A single bather, her delicate white skin now burned by the Caribbean sun, pauses in the grove of the almond trees, seeking their shade. She is sensitive enough to understand how she and the trees share a common “metamorphosis” (Line 49). Feeling welcomed, even comforted, the woman spreads her blanket in the middle of the grove of trees, grateful to be out of the sun and happy for the shade provided by the “bent arms” (Line 51), the canopy of sea-almond trees, that in turn shield her like “parental love” (Line 52).