The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

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W. S. Merwin’s “Learning a Dead Language” begins with a stark and disconcerting statement that takes the breath from one’s lungs: “There is nothing for you to say.” The poem ends with the same statement. In between, the reader is told how to learn a dead language. One must listen and listen again, and remember even when what one remembers doesn’t make sense. A language can only make sense, the poem implies, all at once. Imagine staring at Egyptian hieroglyphs before the Rosetta Stone was found, staring and staring again, memorizing the physical forms of the hieroglyphs but having no idea what they might mean. Then one clue makes sense of it all.

In second person throughout, “Learning a Dead Language” almost reads like instructions for a Buddhist spiritual exercise: “you must/ learn first to listenyou must therefore/ learn to be still when it is imparted,/ and, though you may not yet understand, to remember.” In this discipline, one is told to practice one of the most strenuous forms of self-denial, that of silence, total and long, perhaps the lifetime of silence practiced by mystics both Eastern and Western. It is within the sound chamber of such a silence that one learns to listen. The poem suggests that what one hears when one listens is the dark, inarticulate presence of this dead language. This language constitutes a total order, a sense of self and world, that is unattainable until one learns the art of hearing a language that does not speak.

This will not be easy. The poem says that one must understand the whole language before one can understand any of its parts. Unfortunately, though, one “can learn only a part at a time,” and to understand the least part, one has to “perceive/ the whole grammar in all its accidence/ and all its system.”

It appears that learning this dead language might, then, be impossible, and it is characteristic of Merwin’s poetry that it asks the reader to abide within such paradoxes. In this, he is a mystic poet, evoking the dark that is light, the silence that speaks, the knowing that is unknowing, the enterprise that goes nowhere. The poem promises, only faintly, that silence and long listening may finally result in comprehension. At most, one might hope to hear the passion that once made the dead language live and thus bring oneself into partial accord with a form of wisdom that is inconceivable within the languages that now circulate the globe.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

The most notable stylistic feature of Merwin’s “Learning a Dead Language” is its remarkable flatness of tone, its lack of passion. The poem develops as a set of direct, cool, almost leaden statements. The deadness of tone seems deliberate, adopted to support one of the poem’s chief thematic concerns, which is that the grammatical death of a language is also the demise of its formative, life-giving passion. The language of the poem tries—by means of its lack of tone and its lack of color, image, sensuous detail of any sort—to suggest the absence of this vitalizing passion.

Stylistically, the mode of direct statement is very different from Merwin’s later distinctive style, which is oblique rather than direct, evocative rather than assertive, associative rather than sequential, and syntactically malleable rather than firm. Every aspect of style in “Learning a Dead Language” serves to make the language of the poem rigid, hieratic, and devitalized, almost as if “it,” this language of the poem, were the dead language, awaiting the rebirth of one more passionate and more whole. The poem is, if anything, forbidding, like a closed iron door, challenging the reader not to enter.

Similarly, the structure of the poem is stolid and regular, unlike the “open forms” of Merwin’s later work. Merwin, in fact, was one of those who tried to revive and reformulate what modernist poets called “free verse.” For many contemporary poets, Merwin’s was the most significant voice in defining the idea and practice of “open form” verse—poetry that was built upon temporal air rather than ideas of symmetry, regularity, measure, permanence, poetry that was composed of breath, emptiness, inconclusion. In distinguishing itself from modernist practice, which cultivated and parodied “cultural voice,” Merwin’s poetry sought an impossible voice, the voice prior to and uninformed by culture, the voice of pained and basic being in the world. This, primarily, is why he is often called a primitivist poet.

“Learning a Dead Language” is, unlike Merwin’s signature work, filled with symmetry and regularity. The stanzas are all sestets, six lines long; the line lengths are regular and keep very close to iambic pentameter. Each stanza, after the first, begins with a clause that involves remembrance, usually its salvific and formative functions, so that there is a kind of refrain or chant in the poem of “remember, remember, remember.” Finally, the ending of the poem returns to the beginning: “There is nothing for you to say.” This circular structure tends to close the poem. Such strong closure is very unlike Merwin’s later work, which usually ends on a halftone, a faint or indeterminate utterance or image.

It may, however, be possible to read the ending of the poem more openly: If one has listened and learned, one is full and has no need to speak. The repetition may, then, be repetition with a difference.


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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

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