Technique, Theme, and Autobiography: Analysis of “A City’s Death by Fire”
The poem “A City’s Death by Fire” by Derek Walcott is a semi-autobiographical poem, a recollection of the Great Fire of 1948 in Central Castries (the capital and largest city of St. Lucia). The Great Fire attacked three quarters of the town and left more than 2,000 people homeless. This cataclysmic event affected Walcott’s life, because he was born in Central Castries. Walcott first describes the situation of the city with helplessness and despair, but then realizes that one should not lose faith after the physical world has failed to survive. Through this poem, Walcott conveys his theme that faith should not be help in the man-made world, but rather be held in the immunity of nature through the use of figurative language, diction, and imagery, and juxtaposition.
Throughout the poem, Walcott utilizes figurative language in order to reflect the despair and demolition caused by the Great Fire of 1948. The speaker talks about the “faiths that were snapped like a wire” as he felt betrayed by the false immunity that he thought existed in the city buildings. This simile expresses that abrupt loss of hope that Walcott had felt from the fire. He also mentions the situation under which the poem was written “under a candles eye that smoked in tears”. Although this provides an understanding of what was literally left from the fire, the expression that the candle’s eye smoked in tears also reflects the sorrow and despair felt by the residents. The amount of havoc from the fire is encapsulated in the title itself: “A City’s Death by Fire”. The city is personified as it is said to have the ability to die. Although a city, a non living organism, cannot literally die, the personification represents what is literally and emotionally left of the town. The city is emotionally dead due to the great amount of hope that was lost from everyone after the fire. Because all the faith was lost within the residents, there is a loss of life in the city.
Walcott then develops the idea of physical death of the city by describing the physical destruction caused by the fire. During his recollection of walking through the havoc, he vividly describes the “levelled” buildings, “rubbled” ground, and “torn” houses that were left destroyed from the fire. His rich use of concrete diction effectively portrays the dark and sorrowful image of the city. His diction to describe the city reveals the severity of the amount of demolition that the fire had left the residents.
In addition to describing the emotional effects of the fire through literary devices and the literal demolition through diction, Walcott also communicates the fire’s lack of impact on nature through his extensive use of imagery. He begins the poem by referring to the fire storm as the “hot gospeller”. This metaphorical comparison suggests that the fire spread as quick as a preacher would spread the gospel. The fire spread quick and destroyed the “wooden world”, but it left the “churched sky” without a harm. This suggests that the sky was like the untouchable church and was not affected by the fire. Religious imagery continues to pervade the poem as the hills are compared to “flocks of faith”. This comparison suggests that the hills are also left untouched by the fire just as the sky was. The religious imagery throughout the poem suggests that the fire was almost a biblical catastrophe, but also relaying an apparent message about a sense of faith echoing in the perseverance of nature.
Throughout the poem, Walcott highlights the juxtaposition between the perseverance of the natural world and the destruction of the “wooden” man-made world. He does this by creating a sharp contrast between the immune natural world and the destroyed man-made world. The man-made world is described with a pessimistic tone when he describes the sorrowful destruction from the fire through his use of concrete diction and figurative language. Walcott loses his trust in the man-made world due to how unreliable the buildings were during the firestorm. This is evident when he expresses that he is “shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar”. The simile compares the walls to liars as they have failed to stand strong like the speaker thought it would, therefore, expressing his loss of trust. On the other hand, the natural world is described with an encouraged tone when he speaks about the preserved nature through his religious imagery. The religious implications to the sky and the hills introduces the speaker’s realization of the renewal of his faith. The juxtaposition exposes the realization that the speaker has. He expresses through the juxtaposition that he mistakenly lost faith after the man-made world was destroyed. Moreover, when he notices the perseverance of the hills and sky, he realizes that he should not lose faith due to the destroyed city, because the preservation of nature even after the fire symbolized the “baptism by fire”. The fire was no longer seen as destroying the city, but rather purging the city. The fire purified and renewed the city, just as a Christian baptism symbolises. It removed the vulnerable and fraudulent man-made world and created hope for the rebirth of the city. The fire markes a new beginning of a new founded faith that is not based on the man-made things, but the nature that was preserved.
The semi-autobiographical poem reflects Walcott’s life after the Great Fire of 1948. It reflects how Walcott has lost faith from the fire’s destruction, but then was restored. He expresses his initial feeling of true sorrow and hopelessness through his rich use of figurative language, and uses his concrete diction to express the severity of the death of the city. However, there is a shift in the poem, where the speaker shifts from talking about the destruction of the city to renewal of a pure city. He shifts from hopelessness to faith being restored, because he realizes that the fire just markes a new beginning of a new-found faith.
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The poem “A City’s Death by Fire” by Derek Walcott is a semi-autobiographical poem, a recollection of the Great Fire of 1948 in Central Castries (the capital and largest city […]