The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

W. S. Merwin’s “Leviathan” is written as “imitation” poetry. The poem replicates old english poetry in both thematics and poetic technique. Merwin, following in the footsteps of Ezra Pound, has seen fit to describe the human condition in the twentieth century by using vehicles of poetry established during the Anglo-Saxon period some twelve to fifteen hundred years earlier. In particular, the lonesome, brooding qualities of figures in earlier English poetry are revisited as modern alienation, despair, and isolation. In the manner of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the poem is entirely in the third person, which permits the poet to comment about human nature while appropriately remaining detached himself. The title word “leviathan” means any large sea animal. It was originally applied to various animals such as crocodiles or sea turtles, but today it commonly signifies the whale, the meaning Merwin has in mind.

The first dozen lines or so of the poem provide a description of the leviathan, here seen initially as the “black sea-brute bulling through wave-wrack.” The whale is then shown in action moving through the waves, creating vast havoc, and in his environment, where he “overmasters” the sea-marches to find “home and harvest.”

The whale’s size and actions make him “frightening to foolhardiest/ mariners.” He plows through the ocean waves so as to create terror in the hearts of those who view him. All of nature receives the...

(The entire section is 452 words.)