William Stanley Merwin was raised and educated in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and it is said that some of Merwin’s first writings were hymns. He was educated at Princeton University and studied writing under John Berryman and R. P. Blackmur. After postgraduate studies in romance languages, he traveled throughout England, France and Spain. Settling on the island of Majorca in 1950, he worked as a tutor to Robert Graves’s sons. Merwin was quite successful in placing his early work and publishing his first volume, A Mask for Janus, in 1952. Merwin received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for this volume, which had been selected by W. H. Auden. From 1951 to 1955, he lived in London, supporting himself by writing for British radio and television and translating Spanish and French classics. His second volume of poetry, The Dancing Bears, was published in 1954.
After 1954, he supplemented his income through a series of literary fellowships. In 1956, he returned to the United States and wrote plays for the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Green with Beasts came out in 1956, and four years later he published The Drunk in the Furnace. By 1966, he was able to issue his first Collected Poems.
This first collection marks the first phase of his career, during which he worked mainly with traditional forms, heavily symbolic imagery, conventional rhetoric, and literary allusions. This phase is usually described as heavily influenced by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, though the hand of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats can also be detected. Merwin’s work in these years is formidably intellectual, typical of these models. He is also attracted to themes related to the disintegration of personality in the face of modern stresses and to the loss of traditional order. Yet he manages a charming recasting of a fairy tale as a ballad in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” from The Dancing Bears, and several poems, conspicuously...
(The entire section is 849 words.)