Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

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Merrill’s Water Street, in which “Swimming by Night” is collected, has long been regarded as a distinct break with the remote, symbolist, decorative patterns that dominate his earlier verse, in First Poems (1951) and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems (1959). Poems in Water Street are concerned with domestic, personal, even intimate experiences: Merrill’s own sickness and health, his inspiration, his imagination, his passions for ideas and for people. The formal and metrical preciseness he embraced in earlier volumes is not discarded entirely here, however, but blended seamlessly into a new concentration on themes “of love and loss.” The opening poem in Water Street, “An Urban Convalescence,” is often quoted for its explicit description of this new direction that Merrill intends to take in his work: “the dull need to make some kind of house/ Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.”

“Swimming by Night” compresses several poetic themes common to Merrill. He liked to regard a poem as an opportunity to see double. He both finds his psychological depth in this swim, a form of self-knowledge, and loses himself as he merges with water, or submerges his body, in dreams of escape. Other poems carry the same message, as when, in “The Drowning Poet,” Merrill explains that “To drown was the perfection of technique/ The word containing its own sense, like Time.” The ritual of immersion in language as in water permits the poet to grasp his own senses. In “the far break/ Of waves,” with their implied waves of emotion as well, the poet is carried onward and inward at the same time. Water for Merrill is both adventure and risk: “Plunging past gravity” he can enjoy both the actual and the imaginative dimensions. With any other poet one might ask whether the ocean is threatening to engulf him. However, the reader is reassured by the “master’s robe” of language worn here as protection against the harsh elements, as one might depend upon God’s presence in the midst of a troubled life.

If in “Swimming by Night” one wanted to detect further evidence of Merrill’s evident amusement in playing with language (and with his reader’s understanding of it), then the preference he has for keeping things in suspense, which this poem does both literally and figuratively, crowns all the other tropes. The unconscious is both on the surface of the poem and underneath. Each line resonates with meanings from myth and history, with tones and overtones of other poems—Merrill’s own and those of poets of other times. Finally, the “spinning globe” is Prospero’s, who, in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1674) is a sorcerer of the most dramatic kind, to use as much as “word” is part of “world.”