The Drunk in the Furnace

by W. S. Merwin

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With The Drunk in the Furnace, Merwin intensified and expanded his earlier position that human beings had become increasingly subject to divorce from their environment and from their integrating spiritual centers. The book is enclosed by two defining figures, a Greek warrior-hero and a street person, who reflect for Merwin the typical human situation. The first is the title character in “Odysseus,” the epic wandering hero of the Homeric poems, about whom Alfred, Lord Tennyson had written two poems in the high Victorian mode projecting Odysseus’s role as the model male hero, the man whose will admits no obstacles to his quest.

Merwin’s Odysseus character is internally and externally a wanderer. This represents a dilemma that cannot seem to be resolved regardless of what choice the hero makes. Merwin exemplifies this conflict in his poem in the way the hero often cannot remember who caused his wandering and where his destination lies. Ultimately, the hero must come to terms with his internal conflict before he can externally find his home.

“One Eye” considers the probable consequences of the proverb “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.” Commonly, this saying is taken to summarize folk wisdom, that one can capitalize on one’s advantages by choosing one’s objective audience carefully. Things do not work out this way in Merwin’s world. Although One-Eye at first finds immediate acceptance, his situation quickly begins to pall. As king, he discovers his subjects rich in goods from which he cannot profit, such as their intricate music. Worse, he learns that he cannot share his gift, his advantage, with them: No matter what he does, they will never see. In the end, he cannot save them from their common human fate. He is powerless to change the fundamental conditions of their lives and death.

Merwin uses the image of the singing derelict from the title poem to close this volume. The poem actually begins with the image of the abandoned furnace, cast off to add its litter of decay to an already poisonous creek. This illustrates Merwin’s view of what humans do to themselves, progressively contaminating their environment until it can no longer support life. The drunk, equally cast out by society, appropriately houses himself in this pile of junk, from which he serenades the community. The good people ignore him, for good or evil, but their children cannot keep from gaping at him and, the poet says, studying him. What they learn is the human way: casting out and refusing, even to their own harm. Merwin at this point holds out little hope.

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