Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

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“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 scale.

Many poems in The Lice are concerned with Merwin’s own maturity and its problems: “Looking East at Night,” “December Night,” “After the Solstice,” “December Among the Vanished,” “Glimpse of the Ice,” “The Cold Before the Moonrise,” “Early January,” “Dusk in Winter,” and “For the Anniversary of My Death.” (Indeed, Merwin “must have the mind of winter,” as Wallace Stevens might say.) Read as a sequence, these poems provide an illuminating context for a deeper grasping of this poem. What seems to be missing from it is a direct reference to death. The tone of “In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year” is, or seems to be, free of metaphysical anxiety: “Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars.” Nor is it fraught with longing or hope, as is Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October,” its most kindred forerunner. Merwin’s sense of his own individual destiny seems to bask suspended in a relativity of his own making: “Now no one is looking I could choose my age/ It would be younger I suppose so I am older.” The arbitrariness of the gesture is supported by the fluidity of the syntax, unmonitored as it is by any punctuation markers.

In giving his 1967 volume the title The Lice, Merwin believed he should unravel for the benefit of his public the context from which he had lifted this rather unusual reference. He printed an epigraph from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus on the left-hand side of that volume’s title page:All men are deceived by appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

No better illustration of this observation could be provided than Merwin’s meditation on his own mid-term balance of gains and losses. Yet in Merwin’s poem there can be no easy discrimination between such opposites, for the reason that his losses and his gains are on the move themselves, continually shifting and changing their own significances.