William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927, and grew up in Union City, New Jersey (where his father was a Presbyterian minister), and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. From his own account, his parents were strict and rather cheerless. His earliest poems, written as a child, were austere hymns for his father. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University in 1947. In 1947, he married Dorothy Jeanne Ferry, the secretary to a Princeton physicist. While at Princeton, he was befriended by the critic R. P. Blackmur and became very interested in the work of Ezra Pound. Like Pound, he was a student of romance languages and began to value translation as a means of remaking poetry in English. As a student, he even grew a beard in imitation of Pound and eventually went to visit Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital. In 1949, he followed Pound’s example and left the United States to become an expatriate. His sojourn was to last some seven years. From 1949 to 1951, he worked as a tutor in France and Portugal. In 1950, he lived in Mallorca, Spain, where he was tutor to Robert Graves’s son, William. Graves’s interest in myth became one important influence on the younger poet. In Europe, he met Dido Milroy, whom he married in 1954; they would separate in 1968. After that he made his living for several years by translating from French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese. From 1951 through 1953, he worked as translator for the BBC’s Third Programme. During 1956 and 1957, Merwin was playwright-in-residence for the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1962, he served as poetry editor for The Nation. He was an associate at the Théâtre de la Cité in Lyons, France, during 1964-1965. In 1971, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders.
In 1976, Merwin moved to Hawaii to study Buddhism. There he met Paula Schwartz; they were married in 1983. Merwin has made Maui his home base, traveling to the mainland United States to lecture and give readings. He has become an ecological advocate, lending his support to Hawaii’s environmental movement.