19 pages 38 minutes read

Derek Walcott

Ruins of a Great House

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide


Derek Walcott's poem “Ruins of a Great House” (1953) is set in an old, dilapidated mansion on a lime plantation in the Caribbean built during the colonial era. The speaker walks through the grounds of the manor, contextualizing its decay against the backdrop of its violent and oppressive imperialist past. “Great House” is part of the post-colonial literary movement: It is primarily concerned with the history and consequences of colonization. It examines the moral and ethical implications of empire and the oppression and enslavement of indigenous and African peoples. The poem sets up an extended metaphor, linking great English writers to the brutal history of British colonization. The speaker is torn between the English literature that he loves so dearly and the unavoidable truth of British colonial brutality. Brimming with literary references and allusions, this poem utilizes the canon of English literature to critique, analyze, and come to terms with this dark past and, possibly, to find some meaning or resolution to the trauma that generations of people have endured under colonial rule.

Poet Biography

Derek Walcott was born in 1930 on the island of Saint Lucia in the West Indies to a family of English, Dutch, and African ancestry. His father, a talented white British painter, passed away when he was only a year old; Walcott was raised by his Afro-Caribbean mother, along with his brother and sister. His family was Methodist, and his mother taught at a Methodist school on a majority Catholic island. As a result, Walcott and his family were often marginalized for their religious affiliation. Despite this difficult childhood, Walcott took an interest in the arts from a very early age. He published his first poem at fourteen in his local newspaper and later self-published his first collection of poems at nineteen. Walcott also expressed a love of art and theater, admiring painters like the French Impressionist Paul Cezanne and Giorgione, an Italian artist of the High Renaissance.

After graduating from the University of the West Indies, Walcott divided his time between the United States and Saint Lucia. His work demonstrates a keen and expansive knowledge of the canon of English literature while also incorporating the profound influence of his island home and culture. His language at times shifts between Caribbean Patois and Standard English, reflecting his dual identity as English and Afro-Caribbean. Walcott went on to produce his renowned play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970), which draws upon many genres of English literature and won an Obie award. In 1990, Walcott published what many believe to be his most remarkable work, Omeros, an epic Caribbean fisherman’s tale loosely based on Homer’s Iliad. Most of Walcott's writing is concerned with the complexities and traumas inflicted by colonialism, specifically the consequences of the French and British colonization of the Caribbean.

Poem Text

Walcott, Derek. “Ruins of a Great House.” 1953. PoemHunter.com.


The poem opens with an epigraph, a partial quote from Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, published in the mid-1600s. The passage describes the way time constantly pushes forward. Even in the middle of summer, winter is just around the corner.

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the rocky ruins of an old mansion, comparing the broken stones to the scattered limbs of a corpse. The girls that used to occupy the home are long gone, and lizards sharpen their claws on the broken bits of stone. The mouths of the cherub figures that decorate the stone gate out front have become stained, making them seem like they are screaming. Broken parts of an abandoned horse-drawn coach are buried in dirt and cow manure. The speaker notices three crows flying up into the trees and settling in creaking eucalyptus branches. He smells decaying limes and compares the rotting fruit to “the leprosy of empire” (Line 10). Roughly quoting the English poet William Blake’s “Night” (1789), the speaker ironically eulogizes the ruins left behind by the colonizers of this island.

The scattered stones of the ruined building remind the speaker of the marble in Greek sculpture or the architecture of the American South, as described by writers like William Faulkner. He describes this beauty in autumnal terms (e.g. “deciduous beauty,” Line 14; “dead leaves,” Line 16); it is impermanent and in its twilight years. The speaker notices a spade beneath a mess of trees where the mansion's lawn ends. He imagines that the spade was (or will be) used to dig up or bury some animal—or human—that died during the violent period of colonial occupation. Again, the speaker looks to important work in the western canon: Line 18, “Fallen from evil days, from evil times” may reference John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.

The speaker concludes that limes must have been the plantation’s main crop. He notes that they were most likely grown in the silt on the riverbank. The arrogant and idle white aristocratic men who used to run around with girls are long gone; the river has washed away their memory and the pain they caused. The speaker continues to explore the grounds and climbs up some ironwork on a wall, thinking of the craftsmen, most likely exiled, who forged this iron to protect the grand manor. But it seems their work only protected the house from guilt, but not the worms or the army of mice that slowly ate away at the great estate. The speaker notes that he heard the empire fall—as the English poet and imperialist Rudyard Kipling once did—when the wind blew through the limes. That is, he could hear the abuse that ignorant colonizers enacted onto people, either with religion or with weapons.

The speaker continues exploring the large lawn broken up by small stonewalls, dipping towards the river. As he walks, he thinks about certain prominent Englishmen, specifically the infamous “Sea Dogs” of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Pirates authorized by the crown, these men, including John Hawkins and Francis Drake, were also involved in the slave trade. Walter Raleigh, too, was a pillager and a poet. The idea that this colonizing nation could produce both corrupt pirates and great creatives baffles the speaker. The consequences of colonialism and slavery are left behind, though all the men who lived during this time are long dead. The wind lifts these thoughts of death like ash; the speaker ponders this apparent contradiction between England’s beautiful literature and its evil deeds.

His mind wanders to English poet John Donne, who “burn[s]” his eyes with his “ashen prose” (Line 41)—the speaker is overcome with rage. He thinks that there is likely a dead enslaved person in the lake by the manor. But in the back of his mind, his compassionate nature reminds him that “Albion” (the ancient name for England, Line 45) was once itself colonized by Rome. He references a quote by Donne from his work Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions that describes the cycle of colonization as analogous to the cycle of abuse and mentions another major English poet too; the word “Nook-shotten” (Line 48) was first used by Shakespeare (“In that nook-shotten isle of Albion,” Henry V 3.5.1404). In quoting them, the speaker again revisits Great Britain's complex and violent history, but this time considers how Britain’s own inhabitants, too, were once subject to foreign tyranny. The speaker’s compassion has diffused his anger. He now sees the dilapidated mansion as the decaying home of a forgotten friend.