Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Merrill’s Water Street, in which “Swimming by Night” is collected, has long been regarded as a distinct break with the remote, symbolist, decorative patterns that dominate his earlier verse, in First Poems (1951) and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems (1959). Poems in Water Street are concerned with domestic, personal, even intimate experiences: Merrill’s own sickness and health, his inspiration, his imagination, his passions for ideas and for people. The formal and metrical preciseness he embraced in earlier volumes is not discarded entirely here, however, but blended seamlessly into a new concentration on themes “of love and loss.” The opening poem in Water Street, “An Urban Convalescence,” is often quoted for its explicit description of this new direction that Merrill intends to take in his work: “the dull need to make some kind of house/ Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.”

“Swimming by Night” compresses several poetic themes common to Merrill. He liked to regard a poem as an opportunity to see double. He both finds his psychological depth in this swim, a form of self-knowledge, and loses himself as he merges with water, or submerges his body, in dreams of escape. Other poems carry the same message, as when, in “The Drowning Poet,” Merrill explains that “To drown was the perfection of technique/ The word containing its own sense, like Time.”...

(The entire section is 465 words.)