Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

The most important theme of “Leviathan” can be readily derived from the overall metaphor of the poem: Humanity has both replaced and displaced whales as the dominant being on earth, and its own existence is entirely similar to that of the original dominating animals. Both entities are large, pervasive, and given too much to thought; both are “hulks” in their own environments; both are frightening to other creatures, here called “mariners”; and, finally, both are trapped in the “dark of night,” trying hopelessly to escape but unable to do so because the darkness is pervasive.

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Humanity, then, is likened unto that which is leviathan. Like the whales, humanity lives trapped in the “emptiness” of life. Individuals wait in the stillness, trying to focus with one eye, unable to see because there is nothing to see. Existence is a struggle not so much for survival against nature, but for survival against the nothingness of life.

Merwin has taken the commonplace expressions about life voiced by the earliest English poets and has realized connections, associations, and direct applications between then and now. Alienation is the force against which all struggle and never win; the best to be hoped for is a benign acceptance of the emptiness that can only control and rule until the end of one’s life. The poet does not provide a voice in the wilderness so much as a voice in the depths of the ocean of despair. Life has no meaning, purpose, or direction; each individual trapped in his own isolation and immobility, here represented only by the voice of the poet, lives like a “lost angel/ On the waste’s unease.”

Like the ancient poets, Merwin introduces Christian elements into this background with puzzling results that seem forced. The poet legitimizes the biblical creation, the story of Jonah and the whale, and Satan seen as lost angel. The end of the poem definitely recognizes the presence of a “Creator,” although the reference is hard to understand. Traditional Christian belief would hold that humankind is the ultimate creation of God, his perfection and self-definition made in His own image. For Merwin, this is not so; the “sea curlingis the hand not yet content/ Of the Creator.” Humanity, then, is not the final product of God’s efforts, and humankind is far more akin to the beasts, represented by the whales, than to the Creator Himself. Appropriately, then, humankind “waits for the world to begin” because there is no evident or operant direction and plan to the present world, or to the present existence of human beings.

Essentially, the poem is “existential” in outlook, perspective, and meaning, although it is unique in poetry because of the poet’s successful juxtaposition of an earlier form with contemporaneous thought and belief. Merwin’s poem effectively serves to remind the reader that the recognition of an absence of meaning in life, as well as the understanding that each isolated individual must somehow discover and define life and its meaning for himself, did not start with nineteenth century pronouncements that God is dead. Such thinking has always been apparent in poetry written in English. All great thinkers and sensitive people have been aware that humanity can be rightfully compared with “that curling serpent that in the ocean is,” knowing full well the earth is an empty place that must be filled with individual efforts made in isolation. Such was the life of leviathan when it dominated the planet, and such is the existence of each person.

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