The metaphor implicit in the title of The Carrier of Ladders signals a change, however slight, in Merwin’s orientation and attitudes: Only humans carry ladders, and their object in so doing is to rise, to climb to a new level, even if they do not know exactly what they will find there. The poems in the volume mostly build on this premise. The opening poem, “Teachers,” sets the pattern. The speaker is not clear about much. His surroundings witness mostly pain, but he finds some solace in sleep, and sleep brings dreams in which he remembers learning from books of voyages, the “sure tellings” that taught him. Where they led or may lead is dark, but the speaker values these teachers.
“The Judgment of Paris” re-creates the ancient Greek myth in which three goddesses compete for mastery before Paris; the decision Paris makes leads to the Trojan War. Merwin suggests that the contest was rigged: Any decision Paris would have made would have led to destruction. Human beings, Merwin suggests, are naturally defective and they cannot avoid self-destructive behavior. Ultimately, this is what makes humans interesting. This idea is appropriate to its subject. One of Homer’s themes, picked up by the Greek dramatists afterward, is that humans bring suffering down on themselves but that this suffering engenders compassion, which promotes unity. Merwin ends the poem with an image of Helen picking a flower with roots that allay pain, concluding that...
(The entire section is 406 words.)