Merlin Enthralled

by Richard Wilbur
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135

Lines 1–4
At the start of “Merlin Enthralled,” the knights of the Round Table are already aware of Merlin’s disappearance. The first few words, “after a while,” indicate that they have waited for some word of him or for someone to lead them into action. The fact that they have no clue about where to begin looking is made clear in the first line, which specifies that they are “aimlessly riding.” The reference to their “drained cups” shows that the knights have held off their search until their drinks were finished. In line four, the lack of any “unnatural sound” presents readers with a paradox. If “unnatural” is taken to be a bad or threatening thing, the sort of mischief an evil sorcerer might perpetrate, then its lack is a good thing, but if Merlin himself is considered something different than nature, then the lack of unnatural sound might indicate that he is dead.

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Lines 5–8
In line five “mystery” is personified. The word is usually used to describe a mood, but Wilbur gives it human characteristics. It watches the way a person would watch, and it “darkle[s],” which is the action of making things dark or mysterious. In line seven “mystery” is said to have a voice, which is the sound of the wind through the leaves. Line eight describes the squirrels as making an “alien” sound as they chase each other. They are contrasted with the “ancient” trees that are solid, still, and steady.

Lines 9–12
The third stanza refers back to the distorted reality frequently implied throughout the poem. Wilbur does not describe for readers what it is that might have made the knights stop, or what they felt that made them suspect that Merlin might be near the edge of the lake. Instead, the poem describes this feeling in line nine with the vague word “something.” Stopping and being still for once, the knights pay attention to the small things of nature that they might ordinarily be too busy to notice, such as frogs and insects. Line eleven describes the bugs skating on top of the water and states that the top of the water is “shut,” as though nothing could penetrate it. In line twelve, the sun is described as hot enough to dry out algae on a log.

Lines 13–16
Niniane is revealed in the fourth stanza. As with other aspects of the poem, her presence is implied rather than directly explained. The knights do not directly encounter Niniane, nor are they told that she is behind Merlin’s disappearance. Instead, one knight, Gawen, thinks that he hears a whitehorn deer say her name, but he is not sure. Wilbur goes on to directly explain Niniane’s actions, leaving a question about whether the details in stanzas four and five represent what really happened or if they are just what Gawen imagines.

Lines 17–20
This stanza expresses Niniane’s complete control over Merlin. In line nineteen, Wilbur states that Merlin has been “bewitched” by Niniane. There is some indication he is under the power of a more potent magician than himself, particularly in line twenty. Line eighteen plays off two definitions of the word “sound”: the first is the common use of the term to refer to things that can be heard audibly, while the second hints at the old English word “sund,” meaning “to swim,” which is interpreted in modern language as a “sound” referring to an inlet of water.

Lines 21–24
The sixth stanza shows Merlin slowly losing consciousness of the world around him. In the first two lines of this stanza, death is presented physically. Shapes “escape” from him as if they are moving away from him, when actually his mind is moving away from reality. In the second two lines, death is presented in terms of time. As Merlin dies, history dies, taking him with it. Line twenty-four explains death as a gathering of “the mists of time,” joining the physical metaphor—time as a mist that becomes increasingly solid—to the temporal metaphor of time’s end as death.

Lines 25–28
This stanza joins together Merlin’s thoughts with the thoughts Niniane wants him to think, and it also introduces the symbolism of water. Line twenty-five uses “mountain water” to express how clear his thoughts are when he gives in to the sorceress’s spell. The verb “raveling” in line twenty-six is a unique one in that its meanings include opposite definitions: it can mean “to become entangled or confused,” but it can also mean “to untangle.” Here Wilbur uses it in a deliberately unclear context so that either definition may apply. Calling the dream “deep” and “transparent” in line twenty-six draws a relationship between dreaming and water. This relationship is punctuated in line twenty-eight, in which the relationship between Merlin and Niniane is metaphorically compared to that of a river to the sea. The break between lines twenty-six and twenty-seven draws attention to the unusual time sequence. A dream usually does not exist until one is asleep, and so it could not have called out to Merlin (“bade” him) to sleep, except in the strange mix between reality and magic that Wilbur has created in this poem.

Lines 29–32
Line twenty-nine presents two ideas that challenge the reader’s sense of reality: fate (an abstract concept itself) is said to wish fate, and dreams (a product of sleep) are said to wish sleep for themselves. The poem uses complex language. In line thirty, the word “forsaken” implies that these impossible situations make sense to those, like Merlin, who have not been abandoned. In doing so, it turns readers’ sympathies around. Merlin, who may have once seemed victimized by Niniane, seems fortunate to be joined with her, while Arthur, the powerful king, seems helpless and confused. This stanza ends with Arthur mentioning his hand, drawing attention to his physical power as well as his power as the reigning king.

Lines 33–36
The word “hale,” used in line thirty-three, means both physical might and also, in old English, to pull or drag. The reference here is to the legend of Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur out of a stone when no one else could, proving himself the person fit to rule England as its king. Arthur points out that although he has lost none of the physical strength he had when he performed that feat in his youth, he still could not do it now. Mentioning Arthur’s sadness and his realization that his power is gone in such close proximity to the death of Merlin shows readers that Arthur senses Merlin has gone from the world, even though he has not seen him die. The “woven” blue of the sky at the end of the poem refers to the ancient tapestries that would be woven with scenes from the Arthurian legends.

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