W. S. Merwin Merwin, W. S. - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

W. S. Merwin 1927-

(Full name William Stanley Merwin) American poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and translator. See also W. S. Merwin Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 88.

Although he has written essays; plays; translated poetry from French, Spanish, Latin, and Portuguese; and written television scripts, Merwin's most memorable and controversial work has been as a poet. As one of the most prolific poets of his time, Merwin has, over a five-decade career, published over twenty volumes of poetry and is celebrated as testing the bounds and power of language through imagery driven by a quest for knowledge of the human condition.

Biographical Information

Merwin was born on 30 September 1927 in New York City, the son of a Presbyterian minister. He grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His early life in rural Pennsylvania as the son of a minister, and the poverty he saw there and subsequently wrote about, led to Merwin’s focus on social, philosophical, and spiritual concerns as well as his use of biblical imagery in his works.

After receiving his degree in English at Princeton University, Merwin stayed for postgraduate study in modern languages, during which time he encountered poet John Berryman and critic R. P. Blackmur (to whom his fifth book, The Moving Target, is dedicated), both of whom have had significant influence on his work. Merwin left Princeton for Europe, where he traveled extensively, finally settling in Majorca in 1950, where he worked as a tutor for poet Robert Graves's son. Graves's interest in mythology greatly influenced Merwin, as can be seen in the mythic themes of his early books. Leaving Majorca, Merwin settled in the South of France and remained there for most of the 1960s. He also lived for several years in Mexico and has lived in Hawaii since 1975.

Major Works

Peter Davison, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, whose pages have included Merwin's work more often than that of any other poet, comments that the “intentions of Merwin's poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper.” His first book, A Mask for Janus (1952), displays Graves's influence—mythic themes, a highly formal, neoclassical style, and shades of the medieval poetry Merwin was translating at the time. Chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in the year of its publication, the book's preface (written by Auden) notes that Merwin had caught “the feeling which most of us share of being witnesses to the collapse of a civilization … and in addition the feeling that this collapse is not final but that … there will be some kind of rebirth, though we cannot imagine its nature.” The themes of myth and philosophical questioning regarding the self and survival continue in The Dancing Bears (1954), where the poems also reflect a search for identity. Merwin's third book, Green with Beasts (1956), departs from the formal traditions of his first two books for more flowing blocks of language. Merwin shifts his perspective from that of one who describes an experience from without to one that participates in the experience. Green with Beasts is broken into three parts: the first, a bestiary, includes “Leviathan,” which draws on the biblical themes of Genesis; the second section involves poems that are dramatic monologues, including “The Annunciation” and several others based on Judeo-Christian traditions; the third section centers on images of the sea.

Although The Drunk in the Furnace (1960) continues the sequence of sea poems started in Green with Beasts, the last few poems in the book show Merwin shifting to more uniquely American themes. This book followed two years’ residence in Boston during which Merwin met a number of poets who were breaking with the traditions of the 1950s including Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Robert Lowell. Merwin resurrects feelings and images from his past, admonishing those who complacently accept poverty, ignore the social plight of others, and damage the landscape. The title poem, which also concludes the volume, summarizes Merwin's view of the American landscape as both comedy and tragedy. “The Drunk in the Furnace” has made a discarded furnace his home—Merwin's symbolic image of spiritual and material poverty. This departure from his early themes and format is intensified in The Moving Target (1963), where Merwin essentially abandons punctuation, making the reader responsible for interpretation of syntax and, to a degree, abdicating control of his work and inviting the reader to construct his or her own images.

The Lice (1967) is one of the most critically acclaimed volumes of poetry in the last fifty years and has often served as the yardstick against which critics measure the rest of Merwin's work. The book's title is taken from an ancient Greek riddle that Homer, the wisest man in Greece, could not solve. Merwin wishes to point out to us that we need to focus on the mystery of the world and our distance from it. Although often interpreted as a reaction to specific events, such as the Vietnam War, The Lice is perhaps more properly viewed as another step along Merwin's continuum in which he focuses on nature and spiritualism. In 1970 Merwin published both his Pulitzer prize-winning The Carrier of Ladders and his book of short fiction, The Miner's Pale Children. The Carrier of Ladders includes a sequence of poems devoted to westward expansion in the United States, echoing works by Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Gary Snyder. The fifteen poems in the collection trace Merwin's thoughts on American history, including autobiographical “journeys,” his early images of Pennsylvania, the westward movement of Europeans, and the misuse of land and maltreatment of Native Americans.

In The Compass Flower (1977) Merwin moves further along the continuum, shifting to a more personal voice reflecting his feelings about his parents, life, death, love, and the importance of all types of connections—communal, biological and familial. The Rain in the Trees (1988) showcases Merwin's concerns with respect to ecology and cultural anthropology. Merwin's Travels (1993) presents the experiences of naturalists, artists, the Amazon experiences of Manuel Cordova, and includes a long personal account of his childhood and his minister father. In 1996 Merwin published his book-length narrative epic poem The Folding Cliffs, a historical piece concerning the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

Critical Reception

Merwin's poetry has been greeted with a mixture of praise and criticism, with his early work regarded as his most universally successful and his later work evoking more critical responses. Some critics, including Victor Contoski, argue that the mixed reception is a result of a misunderstanding of Merwin's use of unfamiliar poetic traditions rather than the often-cited opinion that his work is simply enigmatic and obscure. Edward Haworth Hoeppner agrees that Merwin's poetry presents some problems for readers and critics alike; Neal Bowers explains this as a failure to consider Merwin's work in a postmodernist context. Most critics, however, have celebrated his work, and his list of awards—including the Pulitzer prize (for The Carrier of Ladders), Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Kenyon Review fellowships, and numerous other grants and prizes—is testament to the critical acclaim he has enjoyed over his fifty-year career. Merwin's themes, including myth, emptiness, and cultural death, are explored by Thomas P. Roche, Jr. and Jarold Ramsey, while Kenneth Andersen, Harvey Gross, and Anthony Libby consider Merwin's evolution as a poet. The development of Merwin's poetry and style is examined by Frank MacShane, who cites the poet's European years and Ezra Pound as significant influences. Analysis of Merwin's poetry is provided by John Vogelsang, and by L. Edwin Folsom, who addresses Merwin's obsession with the meaning of America, and Cheri Colby Davis, who investigates Merwin's use of time in his work. Analysis of specific works is offered by Vincent B. Sherry, Jr., who examines Merwin's shift from traditional to surreal forms using The Compass Flower as a basis. Randall Stifler explores “The Annunciation,” one of Merwin's more powerful works, while Michael W. Thomas considers “For the Anniversary of My Death.” John Burt offers a detailed review of Merwin's narrative epic The Folding Cliffs. Michael Clifton comments on Merwin's visionary poetry, contending that it is derived from altered states of consciousness. Jane Frazier discusses the narrators of Merwin's poems, noting that they are often “disembodied,” thus permitting a story to be told without the intrusion of ego.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

A Mask for Janus 1952

The Dancing Bears 1954

Green with Beasts 1956

The Drunk in the Furnace 1960

The Moving Target 1963

The Lice 1967

Selected Translations, 1948-1968 [translator] 1968

Voices [translator] 1969

The Carrier of Ladders 1970

Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment 1973

*The First Four Books of Poems 1975

The Compass Flower 1977

Finding the Islands 1982

Opening the Hand 1983

The Rain in the Trees 1988

Selected Poems 1988

The Second Four Books of Poems 1993

Travels 1993

The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative 1996

The Vixen: Poems 1996

East Window: The Asian Poems 1998

The River Sound: Poems 1999

The Pupil: Poems 2001

Darkling Child [with Dido Milroy] (play) 1956

The Miner's Pale Children (short stories) 1970

Houses and Travellers (short stories) 1977

Unframed Originals (autobiographical sketches) 1982

*Includes A Mask for Janus, The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, and The Drunk in the Furnace.

†Includes The Moving Target, The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment.

Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (essay date 1963-64)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Roche, Thomas P., Jr. “Green with Poems.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 25, no. 1 (1963-64): 89-104.

[In the following essay, Roche discusses some themes in Merwin's poetry, including the journey and myth, and comments that they reflect his concerns with totalitarianism, disarmament, and scientific threats to mankind.]

William S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927 and thereafter lived in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was graduated from Princeton in 1948 and studied romance languages in the Princeton Graduate School for a time. Between 1949 and 1951 he worked as a tutor in France, Portugal, and Majorca. His first...

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Kenneth Andersen (essay date January-October 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Andersen, Kenneth. “The Poetry of W. S. Merwin.” Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 16 (January-October 1970): 278-86.

[In the following essay, Andersen characterizes Merwin's work as a poetry of evolution based on a philosophy that depends on an ever-changing point of view.]

W. S. Merwin's poetry (The Dancing Bears, Green with Beasts, The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice), is a poetry of a distinct evolution. In these five books of poems, he has created not only diverse works of art but also, within this art, a synthetic philosophy which depends on, for its very foundation, a...

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John Vogelsang (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vogelsang, John. “Toward the Great Language: W. S. Merwin.” Modern Poetry Studies 3, no. 3 (1972): 97-118.

[In the following essay, Vogelsang analyzes Merwin's treatment of the dichotomies between words and the objects they represent, and between man and the divine.]

The early poetry of W. S. Merwin finds the poet caught in a dichotomy of “here” and “there.” The “here” is the feeling of a split and distance between words and the objects they signify, between meaning and activity, and between a sense of self as an entity and as an active participant in the creative process of the world. It is the emptiness within—the sense of lack and the...

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Jarold Ramsey (essay date summer 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ramsey, Jarold. “The Continuities of W. S. Merwin: ‘What Has Escaped Us We Bring with Us.’” Massachusetts Review 14, no. 3 (summer 1973): 569-90.

[In the following essay, Ramsey discusses the evolution of Merwin's style and themes, focusing on The Lice and its place in Merwin's oeuvre.]

Too much has been made, probably, of the New Departures in W. S. Merwin's poetry since he began his career in 1952 with A Mask for Janus. Remarkable differences there are, to be sure, between those ripely elegant, sometimes precious early poems of high mythic density, and the downright, Lowellesque family mythologizings in The Drunk in the Furnace;...

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Anthony Libby (essay date winter 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Libby, Anthony. “W. S. Merwin and the Nothing That Is.” Contemporary Literature 16, no. 1 (winter 1975): 19-40.

[In the following essay, Libby explores the development of Merwin's poetry, noting his increased focus on themes of emptiness and cultural death.]

Of the immortal in “Blue” Merwin writes, “There is no pity in him. Where would he have learned it?”1 Colder than any of his contemporaries, the poet himself seems to aspire to such supernatural neutrality. Even more than the glacial Wallace Stevens he has actually achieved what Stevens called “a mind of winter,”2 not simply in order to behold Nothing, but to describe...

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Cheri Colby Davis (essay date winter 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Cheri Colby. “Time and Timelessness in the Poetry of W. S. Merwin.” Modern Poetry Studies 6, no. 3 (winter 1975): 224-36.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses Merwin's use of time in his poetry, focusing on such poems as “The Counting Houses,” “The Last People,” and “The Port.”]

My particles of time play with eternity.

—Antonio Porchia

In the final version of his Scienza Nuova (1744), Giovanni Battista Vico conceives of time—historical time—not as a straight line, but as a process of recurrence. Nations constantly wax and wane. Early in our own century, Oswald Spengler described anew the...

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L. Edwin Folsom (essay date spring 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Folsom, L. Edwin. “Approaches and Removals: W. S. Merwin's Encounter with Whitman's America.” Shenandoah 29, no. 3 (spring 1978): 57-73.

[In the following essay, Folsom examines what he regards as Merwin's obsession with the “meaning of America” as well as his response to Walt Whitman's characterization of it.]

W. S. Merwin on being an American poet:

I have sometimes puzzled over the possibility of being an American poet (But what else could I be—I've never wanted to be anything else) and certainly the search for a way of writing about what America is, in my lifetime, is a perennial siren. But not, I think,...

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Victor Contoski (essay date spring 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Contoski, Victor. “W. S. Merwin: Rational and Irrational Poetry.” Literary Review 22, no. 3 (spring 1979): 309-20.

[In the following essay, Contoski disagrees with the critical opinion that Merwin's later works are obscure, suggesting instead that the poems are difficult to analyze because of Merwin's use of unfamiliar literary traditions.]

In discussions of the later poetry of W. S. Merwin, there seems to be critical agreement on two points: 1. its obscurity; 2. its refusal to yield its meaning in paraphrase. Most criticism of Merwin has therefore avoided detailed analysis of his difficult poems, contenting itself with more general approaches to the work...

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Vincent B. Sherry, Jr. (essay date winter 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sherry, Vincent B., Jr. “W. S. Merwin.” Contemporary Literature 21, no. 1 (winter 1980): 159-68.

[In the following essay, Sherry provides analysis of Merwin's merging of traditional forms in his early works with his later use of free association and surrealism, discussing poems from The Compass Flower as examples.]

The poetry of W. S. Merwin comprises things both old and new. Since his first volume A Mask for Janus won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1952, he has in his own way looked forward and backward, developing a distinctive voice as he has mastered a diversity of influence. There have been the years of apprenticeship to Robert Graves on...

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W. S. Merwin, Ed Folsom, and Cary Nelson (interview date winter 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Merwin, W. S., Ed Folsom, and Cary Nelson. “‘Fact Has Two Faces’: An Interview with W. S. Merwin.”1Iowa Review 13, no. 1 (winter 1982): 30-66.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1981, Merwin discusses his feelings about Whitman and Thoreau, his use of language, and his development as a poet.]

[Folsom]: You have rarely done interviews. Why?

[Merwin]: I gave one in Los Angeles about six years ago, with a couple of students who wanted to do one, but they hadn't prepared anything. I think that's one of the reasons for distrusting it. If the interviewers are unprepared or the questions are remote,...

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Edward Haworth Hoeppner (essay date September 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoeppner, Edward Haworth. “A Nest of Bones: Transcendence, Topology, and the Theory of the Word in W. S. Merwin's Poetry.” Modern Language Quarterly 49, no. 3 (September 1988): 262-84.

[In the following essay, Hoeppner discusses Merwin's enigmatic style and the problems it creates for readers and critics alike. Hoeppner attributes this opaqueness to Merwin's use of object images to evoke “interiors” and his phenomenological assertion that “everything has its story.”]

But poetry that thinks is in truth
          the topology of Being.
This topology tells Being the
          whereabouts of its actual


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Michael Clifton (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Clifton, Michael. “Breaking the Glass: A Pattern of Visionary Imagery in W. S. Merwin.” Chicago Review 36, no. 1 (1988): 65-83.

[In the following essay, Clifton explores Merwin's visionary poetry—poetry that deals with altered states of consciousness—written between 1962 and 1977, asserting that it exhibits a progression from a negative to a positive vision and a coming-to-terms with the unconscious and death.]

After quoting Blake's own words to establish his work as essentially “‘Visionary,’” and then defining that term as the “view of the world … as it really is when it is seen by human consciousness at its greatest height and intensity”...

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Neal Bowers (essay date spring 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bowers, Neal. “W. S. Merwin and Postmodern American Poetry.” Sewanee Review 98, no. 2 (spring 1990): 246-59.

[In the following essay, Bowers suggests that Merwin's poetry may pose difficulty for critics because they fail to view his work in the context of postmodernism.]

When W. S. Merwin's1 first book appeared in 1952, literary taxonomists had no trouble classifying it. W. H. Auden, who selected the volume as that year's Yale poetry prize-winner and wrote a preface for it, led the way, commenting on Merwin's respect for the “traditions of poetic craftsmanship” and identifying the young poet as an inheritor of the universal mythic tradition....

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Jane Frazier (essay date summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Frazier, Jane. “Writing outside the Self: The Disembodied Narrators of W. S. Merwin.” Style: Rhetoric and Poetics 30, no. 2 (summer 1996): 341-50.

[In the following essay, Frazier explores the almost disembodied character of many of Merwin's narrators and suggests that the poet uses them in order to tell a story without the burden of ego.]

The search for an original, natural world—or origin—is perhaps the single most distinct topic to be found in the poetry of W. S. Merwin since the The Carrier of Ladders (1970). To achieve the participation in nature that they desire, Merwin's narrators betray little or no personal identity and often seem as if...

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Robert Finley (essay date autumn 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Finley, Robert. “The Riddle's Charm.” Dalhousie Review 77, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 313-22.

[In the following essay, Finley discusses how Merwin's use of riddles in his poetry contributes to their enigmatic tone.]

Habit is evil, all habit, even speech
And promises prefigure their own breech.

—John Wheelwright (W. S. Merwin, Epigraph to A Mask for Janus)

Let me begin by posing you a riddle, an old one once posed to Homer by a group of boys, and which, apparently, stumped him. The boys have been hunting, or so they say, and they say to Homer where he sits in the olive shade of the town's central square, “What we have...

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John Burt (review date winter 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Burt, John. “W. S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs.Raritan: A Quarterly Review 19, no. 3 (winter 2000): 115-34.

[In the following review, Burt examines Merwin's book-length poem The Folding Cliffs, declaring it one of the few distinguished narrative poems of the 1990s.]

Over the last two hundred years, poetry has ceded much of its intellectual territory to fiction. Where once not merely the central myths and metaphysical speculations of Western culture were written in verse but also its legal codes and even its genealogies, verse has become in the twentieth century more and more limited to areas of private feeling, able to speculate on the...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Davis, Cheri. W. S. Merwin. Boston: Twayne, 1981, 178 p.

Monograph on the life and works of Merwin.


Allen, Gilbert. “When Paraphrase Fails: The Interpretation of Modern American Poetry.” College English 43, no. 4 (April 1981): 363-70.

Discusses how Merwin's poetry defies traditional methods of interpretation and the manner in which recent American poetry has abandoned standard notions of the poem.

Brunner, Edward. Poetry as Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W. S. Merwin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991, 329 p.


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