In the Winter of My Thirty-eighth Year Themes

W. S. Merwin

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year” is a poem about manhood and its problems. The sense of achievement is definitely there, for “speech”—the most precious tool of the poet—has already “lent itself to [the speaker’s] uses.” There is also a sense of impending crisis in spite of the disclaimer: “There is nothing wrong with my age now.” The speaker feels at odds, as the reader has seen, with his present condition. Moreover, his “emptiness” is freely floating among the receding stars. This levitation and boundlessness is what ultimately prevails.

The difficulty the speaker faces is one of definition. The speaker’s age has been imagined, anticipated, and, like his youth, indefinitely deferred. The perplexity and confusion results from the fact that the observer’s vantage point does not lie outside the moving system of reference (Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity comes to mind here) but is a part of it. One cannot experience directly both the river of time and its relative speed with respect to stationary objects along the banks.

On the other hand, the thirty-eighth year in the life of an American poet, as a critic of Merwin’s oeuvre has pointed out, is an important landmark. At that very age, Walt Whitman completed his first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Consequently, later poets of the self—and Merwin is one of them—may be tempted to measure their own achievement against Whitman’s time...

(The entire section is 602 words.)