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Analysis of Poem "Ruins of a Great House" by Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott and a Summary of Ruins of a Great House

Ruins of a Great House focuses on history, colonialism, literature and corruption through power.

It's a poem that reveals Walcott's ambivalence towards the culture of Great Britain, at its most dominant in the 18th and 19th centuries when slavery was a hugely profitable business.

The British colonised much of the Caribbean during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, setting up vast plantations worked by black slaves subjected to abominable cruelties.

Walcott is quite naturally repelled by the actions of the British towards native African peoples yet has to reconcile the fact that he writes in and is heavily influenced by the English language.

So it is that throughout the poem, various quotes and paraphrases from English writers are inserted, the effect of which is to both heighten awareness and sharpen contrast.

The poem also explores the inevitable tensions arising between master and slave, perpetrator and victim, history and legacy, writer and conscience. Walcott uses:

  • Metaphor. The metaphorical use of a ruined plantation house as the former empire underpins the narrative.
  • Metonym. The lime fruit is a metonym for the British Empire. Lime plantations were particularly profitable and useful because lime fruits helped combat the scourge of scurvy aboard British naval ships.
  • Allusion. The English language and culture as expressed by notable writers, such as Donne, Blake and Kipling, and explorers, Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake, is used to create a sense of irony and antipathy.

Derek Walcott was born in 1930 in St Lucia in the British West Indies and has been exploring the roots of his culture in his poetry by using the English language. As a black poet (and dramatist), he has had to wrestle with the issue of versifying in English, the language of those who enslaved many of his people.

Ruins of a Great House presents the reader with vivid imagery and stark contrast. Here is an initially objective speaker detailing the ruinous state of a house, going back through time, becoming personal (in first-person) in an attempt to fathom out just what it is he feels and thinks.

There is anger, reasoning and finally compassion, an acknowledgment that yes, those slaves who lived and worked here were subject to appalling injustices, yet those who were cruel came from a country that had also once been a colony of the Romans.

It's one of Walcott's earlier poems, written in 1956 and published in his breakthrough book In A Green Night in 1962.

Ruins of a Great House

though our longest sun sets at right declensions and makes but winter arches, it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes. . .

Browne, Urn Burial


Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.
The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;
Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck
Of cattle droppings.
Three crows flap for the trees
And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of empire.
‘Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!’

Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
But where the lawn breaks in a rash of trees
A spade below dead leaves will ring the bone
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.

It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone,
The river flows, obliterating hurt.
I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded cavalry of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.

A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
The world’s green age then was rotting lime
Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.

Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, ‘part of the continent, piece of the
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
‘as well as if a manor of thy friend’s. . . ‘

Line by Line Analysis of Ruins of a Great House

Ruins of a Great House is a free verse poem and has no set end rhyme scheme or regular metrical beat.

The first ten lines are pure observation, image upon image piling up as the speaker moves through the ruins.

Line 1

So the reader is initially introduced to stones, which are scattered about - disjecta membra (scattered fragments in latin) probably inspired by Horace's disjecta membra poetae (limbs of a dismembered poet) - an early literary reference, one of several embedded throughout this poem.

Line 2

The great house was once inhabited by girls who perhaps flitted around the lights at night like moths but are now part of the same dust once lit by candles. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...

Line 3

There are lizards living in these ruins and they can literally sharpen their claws on once were the walls of the house. Nature has taken over again following the brief interruption by empire.

Line 4

Cherubs are winged unearthly beings, from the bible stories. Two are said to have guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived. Here they are shrieking, in pain, from fear, because they're stained - with what is uncertain. It could be the actual residue of some substance, but more than likely is the stain of past cruelties and horrors, and guilt.

Lines 5 and 6

The first example of enjambment - when a line runs on into the next without punctuation but maintaining sense - sees old ruts of a track now covered by cow dung.

So this is certainly a picture of former glory - the ruins are scattered, the place now left to lizards and moths, the entrance stained, the track fit only for droppings.

Lines 7 and 8

And three crows, the harbingers of doom and evil doings, are in the eucalyptus trees, whose branches creak as the heavy birds settle down for the roost. Enjambment again.

Lines 9 and 10

For the third time enjambment is in use - building up some momentum as the line breaks take the reader on...muck/Of...trees/And...before the pause for nose/The.....

Here are limes, the green fruit full of vitamin C that helped keep the British navy afloat and free from scurvy (a disease which weakens the system and eventually leads to death in extreme cases). Plantations made profits from selling them and used slaves brought from Africa to work them.

This is a powerful line because the limes are dead - personification bringing the image to life - and the stench gets right into the nose and quickens (makes more active) the leprosy of empire....that is some statement.

Leprosy is also a disease, a serious one sometimes, and involves disfigurement and disability if left untreated. Is that the inference here? The idea that empire was contagious and if touched meant certain doom for some...

Lines 11 and 12

This is a paraphrase of a line from Blake's poem Night, the theme of which is good versus evil. Walcott has extended it a little but the sentiment remains - here the speaker is suggesting that when empire is around you can say goodbye to freedom and happiness.

Analysis Line by Line of Ruins of a Great House

Line 13

The speaker continues to describe the ruins as he makes his way through them.

Marble is a white, sometimes streaky stone, used for building and decoration. Greece is one of the biggest producers and many of its ancient structures and statues are made of finest marble.

Faulkner's South refers to the novelist William Faulkner, known for his novels and stories of the southern states of America.

The reference to Greece implies that here is an ancient culture now defunct. Faulkner had a love/hate relationship with the south which resonates with the speaker.

Line 14

Deciduous trees are those that lose their leaves every year but now they are no more.

Lines 15 - 18

The tone begins to shift slightly as the speaker focuses in on another ruinous aspect of the house and grounds.

There are some trees remaining but the reader is left to guess what they might be. A rash of trees suggests a not too healthy grouping, with dead leaves nearby.

Note the enjambment again which encourages the reader to run on from line to line as the tone changes. Now there is a spade, used for digging up or burying - the metal spade will ring (make a sound) against the hard bone.

The last line is inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost, so here we have an animal or a human buried at a time when the slave plantation was thriving as an evil business.

Ruins of a Great House Analysis Line by Line

Lines 19 - 20

The dead limes mentioned earlier are now confirmed as the fruit the plantation was created to produce. The silt, fine soil, now gathers at the river's edge.

Lines 21

The imperious rakes refers to the arrogant but idle men of fashion who once strutted around the estate with their girls.

Line 22

As the river flows on it seems to wipe out all thoughts of hurt. The speaker obviously feels some kind of pain as he works his way through the ruins - he knows something horrible occurred but senses that, despite the evil of the past the present somehow heals.

Lines 23 - 26

The speaker becomes a person...note the first use of 'I'. The speaker becomes part of the ruined landscape, becomes active by climbing over the ironwork. This crafted protection kept wealth and privilege intact, perhaps gave the owners a false sense of moral superiority...they felt no could they living with marble, fine stone, big trees and profit.

Nature has taken over, the grille ironwork helpless to stop the worm and the mouse, two common creatures - the word rent implying that the worm takes out something from the estate, and the word cavalry is military in origin, as if the mice are running to rescue.

Lines 27 - 31

The wind in the lime trees reminds the speaker of a death rattle, of empire, and backs this up with reference to Rudyard Kipling, one time known as the Poet of Empire.

Kipling, as an imperialist, upheld the process of colonisation, seeing it as the 'white man's burden', with the bible and the sword the main weapons of subjugation.

Line by Line Analysis of Ruins of a Great House

Lines 32 - 36

Now the speaker speeds up, close to or on a green lawn, with low walls, thinking all the time about the situation he finds himself in. He knows of the cruelties of the past, seems to be weighing up and judging the cultural dilemma within.

He gives three examples of English explorers and naval men, known as the Sea Dogs - two of whom, Hawkins and Drake, were definitely involved in the slave trade. The speaker sees them as murderers and poets - Raleigh was certainly a poet but the other two not.

The fact that such a nation could produce both criminals and writers confuses matters for the speaker, who uses English, yet whose ancestors were treated so badly.

Lines 37 - 38

The stench of limes becomes a metonym for all the horrid deeds perpetrated by the British, their system fuelled by the slave trade, their heroes villains, their galleons (ships) writing the death warrants of countless African slaves.

Line 39

One of the simplest lines in the poem. A straightforward sentence, with caesura (pause). Men come and go, the rotten things they do remain.

Lines 40 - 42

The idea of death intensifies, this time blown by the wind that disperses the ash (ashes to ashes) yet causes the mind's ember to glow or cools the orange glow? The speaker's are burning (red?) as he thinks of Donne (1572 - 1631), a well known metaphysical poet who wrote his Meditations following severe illness - see below for more detail.

Ruins of a Great House Analysis Line by Line

Lines 43 - 50

The speaker is angry as he pictures a slave in the lake - the emotions affecting him must be intense as they compete with a more thoughtful and cooling compassion, which is based on reasoning.

Albion is an ancient name for Great Britain, invaded many times over the centuries, and itself a colony of the Romans for around four hundred and fifty years. The speaker is trying to reconcile the facts of the past with his current feelings of anger for misdeeds and abuse.

Donne's words ('part of the continent, piece of the main') precede those of Shakespeare (nook-shotten) as the speaker goes back in his mind to those far off times when Britain and its inhabitants were likewise subject to foreign rule and disputes. They too paid a price.

Lines 51 - 53

The final three lines conclude with the speaker's compassion coming to the fore - there isn't forgiveness but there is a kind of understanding, based on Donne's idea that no man is an island and that every man's death affects everyone else.

This recognition of humanity's plight comes as a surprise. Past atrocities have to be faced, abuse and death admitted, and those who misused their power brought to book.

Yet how can these wounds be fully healed when there are so many reminders of a past rotten regime in one's homeland and that is continuing somewhere else in the world right at this moment.

Perhaps this is the strength of the poem - it makes the reader think about the history of power and domination and abuse on a local and global scale.

nook-shotten in Ruins of a Great House

Nook-shotten, rook o'erblown, deranged

Dauphin: ... I will sell my dukedom,
To buy a slobbery and a dirty farm
In that nook-shotten isle of Albion.

(Nook-shotten: full of nooks, or shot out into corners or angles)

William Shakespeare, Henry V, III v 14.

Lines In Ruins of a Great House Inspired by Blake, Milton and Donne

'Farewell green fields,

Farewell ye happy groves.'

Farewell, green fields and happy groves,

William Blake, Night (from Songs of Innocence) 1789

Fallen from evil days, from evil times

More safe I sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues. In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude …

John Milton, Paradise Lost, VII 23 1667

A colony like ours, 'part of the continent, piece of the main'

'as well as if a manor of thy friend's'

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. .... No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation XVII: Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris. 1624

Hawkins, Walter Raleigh and Drake in Ruins of a Great House

Sir John Hawkins (1532-95) - the first Englishman to become a slave trader, establishing himself around 1562. Cousin to Drake. He had a son Richard Hawkins, who also became an explorer and naval officer.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) - adventurer, courtier and poet, friend to Queen Elizabeth 1st, voyaged to find El Dorado, the fabled Golden Land but never did. Executed by James 1st.

Sir Francis Drake (1540-96) - explorer, naval officer, slave trader famed for circumnavigating the globe 1577-80 after plundering Spanish ships for gold and treasure.


An Introduction to West Indian poetry, CUP, Laurence A. Breiner, 1995.

© 2019 Andrew Spacey