In the Winter of My Thirty-eighth Year

by W. S. Merwin
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

“In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year” is a free-verse, unpunctuated, twenty-two line meditative lyric, divided into five unequal sections. The speaking “I” is clearly the author. The title of the poem calls to mind the famous opening line of Dante’s Divine Comedy (c. 1320), “At midpoint of the journey of our life.” The Florentine poet meant by that midpoint the age of thirty-five, regarded—in biblical terms—as the apex of manhood and creativity. Viewed in this light, the poem might be said to hold that central place in W. S. Merwin’s Selected Poems (1988).

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The first section of the poem makes the reader feel at ease by adopting from the very beginning a familiar tone. The feeling is further strengthened by the ordinariness of the situation. It is indeed true that the border between young adulthood and middle age is a blurred one, and consequently one does not experience it as something actually dividing or cutting one off from younger days.

The poet has made the first section, which belongs to the past, “when I was young,” spill over into the second—dealing with his present condition, in which the speaker can still afford to toy with the idea of appointing his own age in spite of what the calendar says. He is still not showing his age; his understanding seems to have been both affected and untouched by the passage of time.

There is a more clearly marked break after the second section. Each of the remaining three sections deals with an isolated aspect of biography: age (youth), speech, and stars (fate). These sections, though discrete, are constructed in keeping with the same rhetorical pattern. Each is meant to be reassuring by dismissing a negative assessment. Eventually they add up to an odd, undefinable feeling that leaves the poem open-ended and ambivalent.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The poet muses in a relaxed tone of voice. The object of his meditation is the nature of experienced inner or subjective time and its relation to chronological or mechanical time. To emphasize this imaginative effort of grasping the twofold nature of time, the poet makes sparse use of imagery. The first section is conspicuously devoid of concreteness. The aim of the speaker is to establish temporal relationships with which to capture his sense of his own selfhood. Yet he feels remote and disoriented, “As far from [himself] as ever.”

The same dearth of figurative material (there can be no metaphorical activity in the absence of tangible imagery) can be encountered in the third and fourth sections. Both rely on an impeccable logic by means of which the speaker hopes to achieve a clearer and more stable view of his whereabouts.

This is even more true of the second section, which contains a more elaborate design of hypothetical and guarded statements in which time is shown to be both relative and elusive. Its functions or effects are no less difficult to evaluate. This rather artificial and contrived textual space—a kind of hall lined with reflecting mirrors—is introduced by two lines that carry the whole weight of poetic figuration available in the first half of the poem: “Waking in fog and rain and seeing nothing” describes the speaker’s condition now that middle age has overtaken him. The only certainty available is that there is practically nothing to grasp or to lean on. Hence, the speaker goes on, “I imagine all the clocks have died in the night.” This is perhaps the most compelling statement in the whole poem, creating a sense that time has come to a stop and has ceased to matter.

The concluding, fifth section rounds off the picture by contributing its powerful description of stars as drifting “farther away in the invisible morning.” The concluding image—if it can bear that name—“the invisible morning,” is arguably more pregnant than that of the waking self “seeing nothing” and that of the imagined death of all clocks “in the night.” “Invisible morning” is but another way of naming the ungraspable. Yet “morning” is morning, and it sounds a kind of a hopeful note at the end of the tunnel.

The poem is therefore quite telling by the very way in which is eschews direct perception by one’s senses. On the other hand, the figures of thinking—or the way temporality is hurried or arrested, hypothetically juggled and surveyed—make up for the rarefied concreteness of the text. This in itself is a remarkable achievement: To be simultaneously in and out of time, forgetful of its flow and yet mindful of its consequences, is not an easy task for neutral, transparent syntax to accomplish.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

Bloom, Harold, ed. W. S. Merwin. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Byers, Thomas G. What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Christhilf, Mark. W. S. Merwin, the Mythmaker. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986.

Davis, Cheri. W. S. Merwin. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Hix, H. L. Understanding W. S. Merwin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Hoeppner, Edward Haworth. Echoes and Moving Fields: Structure and Subjectivity in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin and John Ashbery. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

Mark, Irwin, ed. Many Mountains Moving: A Tribute to W. S. Merwin. Boulder, Colo.: Many Mountains Moving, 2002.

Merwin, W. S. Unframed Originals. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, eds. W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999.

Shaw, Robert B., ed. American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour, 1974.

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