The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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