Derek Walcott

Rookie (23 January 1930 / Castries / St Lucia)

A City's Death By Fire - Poem by Derek Walcott

After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city's death by fire;
Under a candle's eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire.


Comments about A City's Death By Fire by Derek Walcott

  • (4/8/2017 12:36:00 PM)


    Really good poem, I'd never read this before. The most obvious thing as soon as you see it is it's a sonnet,14 lines, but the syllables are always higher than the traditional 10, the first line has 15, in fact. The rhyme scheme is:

    a B a b c b c B a c d d c B

    The 'b' rhyme occurs 5 times and in fact the upper case 'B' indicates the same word which also appears in the poems title: fire. This repetition of one rhyme and one word especually drives the impact of the fire home, it shows it's the uppermost thing in the narrator's mind, but it also produces an incantatory effect, the repetition of this sound through the poem can ring in our ears and consciousness without us being too aware of it, but produces a powerful effect, like a bell of meaning tolling somewhere in our minds. The beauty of that in this poem is that the devastation that's occurred to the City has been brought about by religion also, specifically that of a hot gospeller, which one would usually associate with evangelical Protestant religion, and in modern times with quite expressive preaching that also uses incantatory effects to produce a feeling and a mood and an emotion in listeners.

    This is further reinforced by alliteration (and repetition of) tale by tallow and the use of wax at initially as a noun and later as a verb. Some phrases stop the reader in their tracks, for example, Under a candle's eye, that smoked in tears: is the candle smoking in the tears like someone might inhale a cigarette? Or is it smoking, as in emitting smoke like a chimney, into the writer's eyes? But then how would he be under the candle's eye? The problem of the phrase is not disagreeably impossible, it just creates ambiguity and intrigue.

    Why would our character who is the 'I' of the poem be ambiguous when he (assuming it is a man) says he wants to record events precisely:

    Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire?

    He's distressed, of course, but his distress could also explain the loss of his city to newcomers who introduced, quite forcibly, strange new ideas and told the people of the city and the surrounding hills that they were sinners of liars, as later, as the narrator is slowly assuming the information the hot gospeller has brought to them (even asking Christ for direction) he calls the walls that represented the last standing remnants of his city liars.
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  • (3/21/2017 9:51:00 PM)


    Its is about the loss and renewal of faith. Literally a church burnt in a fire and what survives... fire is personified a a warner running mad spreading a hell fire gospel message. (Report) Reply

  • (3/21/2017 9:47:00 PM)


    Its is about the loss and renewal of faith. Literally a church burnt in a fire and what survives... fire is personifies a a warner running mad spreading a hell fire gospel message. (Report) Reply

  • Aftab Alam Khursheed (2/25/2015 1:35:00 AM)


    Nice poem- presentation via dream (Report) Reply

  • (2/25/2014 10:26:00 PM)


    A surrealist dream depicted with Judeo Christian imagery, provides a breathtaking vista, of soulful yearning. A lovely read (Report) Reply

  • Howard 'the motivational poet' Simon (2/25/2014 1:07:00 PM)


    A poem of deep sadness and loss that is impregnated with incredible imagery. Well done Walcott. (Report) Reply

  • George Samuel (2/25/2014 12:04:00 PM)


    Great work great ideas to view images and uncover their beautiful pictures great thinking. (Report) Reply

  • (2/25/2014 10:29:00 AM)


    Does anyone know what this poem is about? I haven't a clue. (Report) Reply

    Elisha Wall Elisha Wall (1/14/2015 2:01:00 PM)

    I'm not sure what it means. But I do think the piece is about a Gospeller (an evangelist) shaking things up in a place where unorthodoxy has become the truth.

  • Paul Reed (2/25/2014 5:33:00 AM)


    I wrote the tale by tallow.. great rhythm and alliteration. It contrasts the ashes of the city where man overly concentrates his efforts and mentality, and sometimes forgets the gift of the green open spaces which were given for free. (Report) Reply

  • Sathyanarayana M V S (4/19/2009 12:10:00 PM)


    Now I know why Walcott is called as the greatest living English poet. His poetry has a diffirent flavour, with rich imagery, surrealism and sweet words. (Report) Reply

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Read poems about / on: fire, city, sky, death, green, sea, world



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

Poem Edited: Saturday, November 19, 2011


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