Derek Walcott's "Nearing Forty" was first published in his 1969 collection The Gulf and Other Poems, when the poet was indeed nearing 40. The poem can be considered autobiographical, as the speaker frets about aging and worries that his earlier work was "fireless and average." He turns for inspiration to John Figueroa, a man 10 years his senior and an important friend and mentor in his life. Figueroa exemplifies a workmanlike approach to poetry, advising that aging poets can either give into self-doubt or "rise" and "set" their "lines to work," no matter the result.
(for John Figueroa) ...
... a frosted pane,
nearer the day ...
... fireless and average,
which would be ...
... of occasional insight;
you who foresaw ...
... a louvre's gap,
then, watching your ...
... conventional for convectional;
or you will ...
... can really sleep,
measuring how imagination ...
... seems to weep.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Walcott Remembered — Read Walcott's 2017 obituary in the New York Times, which quotes his metaphor comparing history itself to an "insomniac night."
A Walcott Documentary — Watch a short film about Walcott and his twin brother, Roderick (also a writer and artist).
The Poet's Biography — Read about Derek Walcott's life and work at the Poetry Foundation.
The Poet as Nobel Laureate — Read a biography of Derek Walcott, his citation for the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and his Nobel lecture.
An Interview with Walcott — Listen to the poet discuss his life and work.
(for John Figueroa)
The irregular combination of fanciful invention may delight awhile by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest. But the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth…
1Insomniac since four, hearing this narrow,
2rigidly metred, early-rising rain
3recounting, as its coolness numbs the marrow,
4that I am nearing forty, nearer the weak
5vision thickening to a frosted pane,
6nearer the day when I may judge my work
7by the bleak modesty of middle age
8as a false dawn, fireless and average,
9which would be just, because your life bled for
10the household truth, the style past metaphor
11that finds its parallel however wretched
12in simple, shining lines, in pages stretched
13plain as a bleaching bedsheet under a gutter-
14ing rainspout, glad for the sputter
15of occasional insight; you who foresaw
16ambition as a searing meteor
17will fumble a damp match and, smiling, settle
18for the dry wheezing of a dented kettle,
19for vision narrower than a louvre's gap,
20then, watching your leaves thin, recall how deep
21prodigious cynicism plants its seed,
22gauges our seasons by this year's end rain
23which, as greenhorns at school, we'd
24call conventional for convectional;
25or you will rise and set your lines to work
26with sadder joy but steadier elation,
27until the night when you can really sleep,
28measuring how imagination
29ebbs, conventional as any water clerk
30who weighs the force of lightly falling rain,
31which, as the new moon moves it, does its work
32even when it seems to weep.