The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved
past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.
Hold hard, then, heart. This way at least you live.
"When have I ever not loved the pain of love?" That's the essence of this poem, right there. The poem is all about the suffering of the heart, the unbearable pangs of love, so violent and strong that we harden our hearts so that they may not feel.
Love in this poem is a fist that clenches around the heart, strangling it, holding it in thrall and in pain. When it loosens, even momentarily, Walcott "gasps brightness." When the heart is free, life is light, it's free. But are we ever without love's pain? The pain is so strong that Walcott says it's a madman's grip on his heart, holding onto "unreason." Love as unreason is very easy to understand. We hold on to that "unreason" so that we do not go insane, howling into the dark abyss of our own hearts. The last line, as if spoken directly to the heart, is an instruction to seal itself off, to harden, so that it may not be totally obliterated by the awful pain of love.
It's certainly easy to relate to the fever grip of this poem's picture of love. I'm sure everyone has felt that "mania" as Walcott puts it, a few times. "The strong clench of the madman" really communicates that insane strength with which the heart feels constricted by love. It's the lump in your throat feeling, the sense that you are choking on something inside you so massive that it cannot possibly exist. I admire the way Walcott achieves this effect while using simple, clear, common language.