The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

“Leviathan” makes expert use of the themes and techniques of Old English poetry. Merwin exactingly captures the mood and atmosphere of the Anglo-Saxon mind-set in so far as brooding, isolation, and immobility (or at least pointless mobility) are concerned. The poem is an extended metaphor in which the life of man is compared, never contrasted, with the life of the whale. Humanity, too, is alone in a universe in which the environment is hostile yet sufficiently controlled; other creatures experience fear and dread in the presence of whales or humans; and there is an understood fear and dread of contact within the species.

As is the case with Old English poetry, the verse is highly alliterative; in this poem, in fact, every line contains alliteration, a feat not always accomplished by the ancients themselves. Every line has a marked caesura, a formal break, often rendered by punctuation, in the middle of the line. There is no end rhyming of the lines, and there is no fixed number of syllables. “Lines” are composed of four feet; four heavily stressed words or syllables are paired with unstressed ones. In addition, as is the case in Old English poetry, the language is forceful and direct, and kennings are used. In many Old English poems, Christian scribes later added Christian elements in an attempt to depaganize the themes of the poems. Merwin, too, has incorporated such elements into his work here. In every way, the poet has written a twentieth century poem by prescriptively following the requirements of form and theme used by the earliest English poets.


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