(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title of this poem sets the tone of loss, and the first two lines qualify the loss of a language in the way “the old still remember something they could say.” The poem exemplifies instances in which words that could once describe a particular situation, “standing in mist by a haunted tree” or “The verb for I,” do not exist in contemporary language. This poem can also be a lament for the act of finding the precise word, the mot juste of the twentieth century modernists, and in the contemporary generation, “everywhere instead of a name there is a lie.”

The poet seems to be referring to the euphemistic nature of contemporary language, political correctness, and maybe even contemporary poetry. When the poet states, “nothing that is here is known,” one senses that without the words to name or describe a thing, one loses the knowledge of that thing, so that the loss of language is also the loss of knowledge. The end of the poem presents the reader with two images, extinct feathers and “the rain we saw,” which seems to be the poet’s attempt at rescuing the precise knowledge of things through poetry. Instead of explaining the loss of language in common terms, the poet offers two potent images to exemplify the feeling of loss, leaving the reader with a profound emotion.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. W. S. Merwin. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Byers, Thomas G. What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Christhilf, Mark. W. S. Merwin, the Mythmaker. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.

Davis, Cheri. W. S. Merwin. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hix, H. L. Understanding W. S. Merwin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Hoeppner, Edward Haworth. Echoes and Moving Fields: Structure and Subjectivity in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin and John Ashbery. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

Mark, Irwin, ed. Many Mountains Moving: A Tribute to W. S. Merwin. Boulder, Colo.: Many Mountains Moving, 2002.

Merwin, W. S. Unframed Originals. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, eds. W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999.

Shaw, Robert B., ed. American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour, 1974.