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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

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W.S. Merwin’s Unframed Originals is made up of six sections written at intervals over a span of several years. As Merwin points out in a brief prefatory note, “Each was intended to stand by itself, but each was part of the whole enterprise.” Each was “a product of a single impulse,” the attempt to recapture the past. Born in 1927 in New York City, William Stanley Merwin spent his early years in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his father, a Presbyterian minister, held pastorates. As a young adult, Merwin lived in France, Portugal, and London, supporting himself as a tutor and translator. Merwin’s autobiography concerns itself largely with the people and places surrounding his earliest years.

Merwin is known primarily as a lyric poet and translator of poets. His mature poetry includes The Carrier of Ladders (1970), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. His translations range from the ancient The Poem of the Cid (1959), to the more modern Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1969), by Pablo Neruda. His prose reflects a poet’s distrust of generalizations and analysis. His past, as he recollects it, is not historical but poetic, evoked in a metaphorical but plain style, minutely and sensuously detailed. Neither the individual sections themselves nor the narratives within the individual sections are chronologically ordered. Their order, rather, is one of mood and memory, or, as Merwin puts it, “a presentation of things that originally happened in sequence but now occur in the same moment in my mind, and so have become simultaneous, like flakes of snow that have fallen from different heights into the sea.” While Unframed Originals is clearly autobiographical and Merwin’s memory serves to unite the different sections of the book into a coherent whole, unlike most autobiographies, the primary concern is not Merwin himself, but “reflections of other people,” particularly his immediate family and relatives.

The opening section, “Tomatoes,” serves to introduce several of the book’s central thematic concerns. In it, Merwin, then nine years old, meets his grandfather for the first and last time. They discuss, briefly and inconsequentially, the art of growing tomatoes. Divorced from Merwin’s grandmother long before his birth and banished from the family, his grandfather is absent throughout Merwin’s life. Nevertheless, in his absence, this man exerts a mysterious influence because he can never be fully known.

In the sections which follow—“Mary,” “The Skyline,” “Laurie,” “Hotel,” and “La Pia”—the reader is led, as one reviewer put it, more deeply into Merwin’s “intricate family webs.” Each section centers on a figure peripheral to young Merwin’s life but essential to an understanding of his parents’ inner lives and, consequently, his own. “Hotel,” for example, focuses on the character of Aunt Margie, actually his grandmother’s first cousin. For his mother, she “represented family not only in the sense of blood tie and continuity, but in that of shared assumptions, attitudes, conduct, gesture.” Aunt Margie stayed with the Merwins only briefly, finding the household atmosphere repressive. For his mother, however, she remained, even in her absence, “a private source of strength.” Upon Margie’s death, young Merwin, “for whatever unknown reason,” was made the sole heir to an estate consisting of “one large black and black-green folding steamer trunk” and a small sum of money. Both were significant gifts. The trunk, “this grown-up object appearing out of my mother’s absent family,” came to represent “a past older than either of my parents”—a past that was “in fact mine.” The money was put to use some years later to buy a small farmhouse in France. The price of the house was, coincidentally, “exactly the amount, in francs,” that Margie had left him. His ties to Aunt Margie were tenuous, even accidental, but real—a link, as Merwin writes, to “a life and world before mine.”


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

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Fuller, Edmund. “Autobiographies of a Satirist in Line and a Gifted Poet,” in The Wall Street Journal. CCI (January 3, 1983), p. 22.

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