The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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).

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.