Lament for the Makers

by W. S. Merwin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

“Lament for the Makers” was a poem published as an epitaph to W. S. Merwin’s anthology Lament for the Makers and was later republished in The River Sound (1999). The poem exhibits a loose iambic tetrameter with many meter variations in couplet form. The second couplet in each stanza always rhymes with “me,” the last word in each stanza. This directly correlates with William Dunbar’s sixteenth century poem “Lament for the Makers.” Dunbar’s poem similarly consists of stanzas with two rhyming couplets and every fourth line ending in “me.” Dunbar’s last line is “Timor Mortis Conturbat me,” which roughly translates as “the fear of death troubles me.” This allusion and structure create Merwin’s poem, which laments the death of various twentieth century poets. Through the accumulation of these deaths, Merwin inevitably questions his own life and accomplishments.

Merwin incorporates the death of each author with a reference to his life or writing. For instance, “on the rimless wheel in turn/ Eliot spun.” T. S. Eliot died on January 4, 1965, and Eliot instructed that his ashes be buried at the church of St. Michael, East Coker, England. On his plaque are the lines from Eliot’s “East Coker” in Four Quartets (1943): “In my beginning is my end [ . . . ] In my end is my beginning.” The important image employed throughout the Four Quartets is the symbol of a wheel, as in the wheel of fortune or fate, and the prevailing theme is that the path to glory lies in the stillness at the center of the turning wheel. Thus, Merwin’s allusion is rich and complex in the way in which the symbol of a wheel coincides with Eliot and one of his major poems and the way in which the action of a wheel spinning leads into the image of a car spinning out of control. Randall Jarrell, who also died in 1965, was “borne/ off by a car” and killed in the accident.

What seems to be a dark and ominous message in this poem about dying authors and the presence of death for the poet is juxtaposed with the “secret” and the “changeless overtone” that is likened to a note of music, and the poet is always “trying to find where it comes from/ and to what words it may come.” This search for the precise word to describe that secret seems to be the act of the poet seeking to describe the essence of life. Though the words themselves cannot keep a poet alive, and “the clear note they were hearing/ never promised anything,” Merwin leaves the reader with hope that the note can always be heard.

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