Themes and Meanings
Though stylistically, “Learning a Dead Language” is a work in the formal style of Merwin’s long and accomplished apprenticeship (in his first four books, he masters and exhausts formal style), it very much prefigures his major thematic concerns—his preoccupation with silence, with the inefficacies and failure of language and his desire to find a purer, more poetic, less implicated and virulent language than those that now flow from human tongues.
When Merwin evokes language in his later poems, it is often the “language” of silence rather than that of words. “What is the silence?” he asks in “Some Last Questions,” and the answer is, “As though it had a right to more.” In “The Cold Before the Moonrise” (another poem from The Lice, 1967), he says he would like to speak the language “Of frost stirring among its/ Stars like an animal asleep,” a “language” that is wordless, to be sure, and almost inaudible.
Although “Learning a Dead Language” can be described quite literally as a poem about reviving a language that is no longer current, it can also be understood as a poem about discovering or rediscovering Edenic or Utopian language. Many of the poems in Merwin’s later work are poems about finding or recovering a language that, so to speak, “really works.” This language would be one that seems really to name the passions and the things of this world, and holds them without harm. It would be a language that is, in a way, disempowered, incapable of abusing the world and its creatures, and perhaps even dysfunctional, incapable of being reduced to communication or information, incapable of being commercialized and consumed.
There is in Merwin’s work, both early and late, a deep reluctance to speak. Speech is so often to the side of what one might say; speech is so often banal, ugly, manipulative, and, in poetry, exquisite but impoverished.
In “Learning a Dead Language” and in all of his poems that ruminate on language or the silence that language violates, W. S. Merwin is very much a voice of the twentieth century. While many contemporary voices speak of the joyous delights of language and how one might play with it, Merwin speaks of the grief that accompanies it.