The Light of the World


From the Archive


I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation. What I described in Another Life—about being on the hill and feeling the sort of dissolution that happened—is a frequent experience in a younger writer. I felt this sweetness of melancholy, of a sense of mortality, or rather of immortality, a sense of gratitude both for what you feel is a gift and for the beauty of the earth, the beauty of life around us. When that’s forceful in a young writer, it can make you cry. It’s just clear tears; it’s not grimacing or being contorted, it’s just a flow that happens. The body feels it is melting into what it has seen. This continues in the poet. It may be repressed in some way, but I think we continue in all our lives to have that sense of melting, of the “I” not being important. That is the ecstasy. —Derek Walcott, The Art of Poetry No. 37, 1986


Derek Walcott has died at eighty-seven. In the days to come, we’ll say more about his life and legacy—for now, I wanted to share the last three stanzas from his poem “The Light of the World,” which appeared in our Winter 1986 issue, and invite you to share in the “ecstasy” of his art, as he describes in his Writers at Work interview. He will be missed.


Because I felt a great love that brought me to tears,
and a pity that prickled my eyes like a nettle,
afraid that I might start suddenly sobbing
on the public transport with the Marley going,
and a small boy peering between the shoulders
of the driver and me, at the lights coming
at the rush of the road in the country darkness
with lamps in the houses on the small hills,
and thickets of stars, I had abandoned them,
I had left them on earth, I left them to sing
Marley’s songs of a sadness as real as the smell
of rain on dry earth, or the smell of damp sand,
and the bus felt warm with their neighborliness,
their consideration, and the polite partings

in the light of its headlamps. In the blare,
in the thud-sobbing music, the resinous scent
that came from their bodies, I wanted the transport
to continue forever, for no one to descend
and say a goodnight in the beams of the lamps
and take the crooked path up to the lit door,
guided by fireflies, I wanted the beauty
to come into the warmth of considerate wood
and the silent, relieved greeting of enamel plates
in the kitchen, and the tree in the yard,
but I came to my stop. Outside the Halcyon Hotel.
The lounge would be full of tourists like myself.
Then I would take a dark walk up the beach.
I got off the van without saying goodnight.
Goodnight would be full of inexpressible love.
They went on in their transport, they left me on earth.

Then, a few yards ahead, the van stopped. A man
shouted at me through the transport window.
I walked up towards him. He held out something.
A pack of cigarettes had dropped from my pocket.
He gave it to me. I felt closer to tears.
There was nothing they wanted, nothing I could give them
but this thing I have called “The Light Of The World.”


Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.