18 pages 36 minutes read

Derek Walcott

To Return To The Trees

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide


Derek Walcott’s “To Return to the Trees” (1972) draws on Western literary and mythic traditions; on cultural, historical, and geographic features from his home in the West Indies; and on images from nature to explore ideas about aging, creativity, and immortality. The poem’s speaker envisions other poetic narratives across history reflected in the changing light of sunrise, in the gnarled forms of old trees, and in his own experience of language and interaction. The speaker looks forward to the nobility inherent in old age as he also contemplates the erosion of his own language. Through this speaker, Walcott speculates on the method and means of personal and cultural exchange, the future fragmentation and loss of language, and the universal desire to connect. The poem encompasses the parts of art and wisdom that persist beyond language, looking for the elements left after time erases memory.

Poet Biography

Born in 1930 on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Derek Walcott began publishing poems at the age of 14, going on to earn global acclaim for his work, including the Nobel Prize in 1992. His devout Methodism, his West Indian home, and his interest in classical and modern Western traditions all bring context to his work, making its scope truly multicultural. Questions of individual identity and communal tradition recur throughout his poems and plays.

The family’s Methodist beliefs set them apart from the dominant French Colonial Catholicism on the island; their mother taught in the Methodist school the Walcott children attended. She encouraged their education in a wide array of the arts. Walcott trained as a painter early on, continuing to produce visual art throughout his literary career. Walcott’s twin brother Roderick figures prominently in 20th-century Caribbean theater and culture as a playwright, director, screenwriter, and arts advocate.

Walcott moved to Trinidad in the 1950s, where he founded a theatrical workshop. His first international literary success came in the 1960s with his poetry collection In a Green Night (1962); a wider audience became aware of his work with the off-Broadway production of his play Dream on Monkey Mountain. In 1971, the play won an Obie Award.

From the 1980s on, Walcott lived both in Boston and in St. Lucia, dividing the year between his two homes. This duality enabled him to explore places in his work through historical, cultural, and geographic contexts. Walcott’s narratives give voice to the genius of specific locations in omniscient, timeless detail and encompassing scale. His work most often centers in Western academic and Caribbean folk perspectives, though his time in other areas led to other place-specific work. For instance, time in the US South yielded his volume The Arkansas Testament, a series of poems examining the racial tension and hypocrisy in the region while also acknowledging its parallels to Caribbean culture. The Arkansas Testament thus prefigures the work of Black American writers of the South who, in the 21st century, articulate the role of Black identity as foundational to Southern culture.

Walcott’s epic book-length poem Omeros interweaves his cultural contexts, recasting Homer in a Caribbean context. His use of a modified terza rima verse form for the book-length poem harks to another Western Classic, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Two years after Walcott published Omeros, he won the Nobel Prize. The Academy praised Walcott’s ability to situate his love of his home landscape within the larger Western tradition; in his acceptance speech, Walcott spoke about the struggle to claim identity, its inherently fragmentary nature, and the importance of cultural memory.

After his Nobel win, Walcott went on to win the T. S. Eliot Prize for his 2011 collection White Egrets. He died in St. Lucia in 2017 and received a state funeral. The documentary film Poetry Is an Island: Derek Walcott (2013) explores his life and legacy.

Poem Text

Walcott Derek. “To Return to the Trees.” 1972. Faber & Faber.


From his 1972 collection Sea Grapes, Derek Walcott’s “To Return to the Trees” describes an aging, wizened man, who is the poem’s speaker (generally considered to be Walcott himself), through natural metaphors and historical context. The “senex,” or wise old man, shares traits with a long-standing tree; both the poet and the tree weathered conflicts that have left them twisted but defiant. The speaker embraces the concept of old age, though he may be anticipating old age rather than experiencing it. He considers Ben Jonson’s forceful language, now quieted. Walcott’s speaker consolidates strength in contemplating aging, seeing his “grey” as more crystalline, like quartz, than as a faded version of a greater self. Age for this speaker presents the possibility of a transcending kind of balance, illustrated through the falling temple pillars resting on Samson’s hands and the strain Atlas experiences while carrying the weight of the world. He moves on to suggest Seneca’s limitations and growing irrelevance as his language becomes inscrutable. The speaker accepts the slow erosion of relevance and meaning, even for himself, through this process of fierceness polished to a sheen, before a gradual descent by way of history, myth, and finally nature.