Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 584 words.)