Derek Walcott’s “Ruins of a Great House” is accurately titled. It opens by describing the ruins of a colonial mansion, including stones (1), the dust of the beautiful girls who once lived (and worked) there (2), the decaying statues of angels (4), and the remains of coaches half-buried in mud and cow dung (5-6). Three black crows settle in nearby trees (7-8). References to dead limes and deprosy emphasize once more the themes of death and decay (9-10). An ironic quotation from a pastoral poem emphasizes the irony of the estate's rot (11-12). The marble of the ruined house reminds the speaker of similarly ruined marble in ancient Greece and in the Old South of the U. S. (13). Trees and other plants once grew in the soil but have now died (14), but where some trees still survive, all it takes is probing with a shovel in the leaves in order to find skeletal remains of animals and humans – remains from the time when the house was the center of a plantation based on the evil system of slavery (16-18).
Lime trees flourished once in the rich soil along the river (19-20). Both the young men and the young women who were the masters and mistresses of the plantation have long since died, but the river flows now as it did when they lived and it seems almost soothing (19-22). The speaker climbed an elaborate iron wall. It may have helped protect the owners from any attacks of conscience (perhaps by blocking constant views of the slaves). However, the wall could not prevent the house's decay – decay symbolized by worms and mice.
A wind blowing in the remaining lime trees reminded the speaker of the writings of Rudyard Kipling, the great English author who described the decline of the British Empire while showing how the abuse of colonized peoples was justified by quotations from the Bible and enforced by military power (26-29). Looking at the landscape of the estate, the speaker was reminded of various British explorer/poets who were the first British colonialists and whose talents as writers make their involvements in the murderous abuse of colonized people seem particularly paradoxical (31-34). The springtime of colonialism was also like a “rotting lime,” stinking like the stink of deadly slave ships (35-36). The slaveholders have long since died, but the rottenness associated with the slave system survives in such ruins (37). However, just as ash is blown away from a fire stirred by winds, so the speaker felt renewed pain when he recalled the writings of John Donne, the great English author (38-40). Extremely angry, the speaker thought to himself: even though some slave is probably rotting in the lake I see before me, I need to remember that Albion (that is, England) was itself a colony once – colonized by the Romans divided into political factions. He recalls Donne’s words that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (41-48). The speaker once again recalls words of Donne, who proclaimed that any death diminishes everyone living, just as any small loss of territory is like the loss of a friend’s manor. The poem's final lines suggest that the speaker now feels compassion, rather than anger, when he looks at the ruined house and is reminded of all the deaths associated with it, even the deaths of the masters who profited from their now-dead slaves:
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
‘as well as if a manor of thy friend’s…’