In the Winter of My Thirty-eighth Year Analysis

W. S. Merwin

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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 468 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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