The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

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.

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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 impact of his presence. When the whale is last seen, he is diving into the “cold deepdrowning.”

The speaker of the poem then places the leviathan in the context of human history and identifies his association with humankind by listing a series of biblical references. Specifically, the reader is reminded that the whale was the first creature made by God and that Jonah was held by the whale for three days and nights. After describing him as the “curling serpent” of the ocean (yet another biblical reference, this time to the Garden of Eden), Merwin compares him to Satan himself in the phrase “lost angel.” Finally, the main point of the poem is made: It is humanity that is the new leviathan; that is, humankind has now come to occupy the same position in the cosmos that was once held by the great whale. It is the human race that has come “to herit earth’s emptiness.”

In the concluding sentences of the poem, Merwin returns to the whale in action. The leviathan, now identified as both whale and humanity, is left in an isolated state, “cumbered with itself.” The Creator, perhaps, has made no advancement in moving from whales to humans; both existences are isolated, functional, and mechanical. Both creatures dominate their environments, but neither experiences any peace or fulfillment.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 263

“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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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

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