W. S. Merwin Analysis

Other literary forms

A talented translator, W. S. Merwin has translated numerous works including The Poem of the Cid (1959), Persius’s Satires (1961), The Song of Roland (1963), Voices, by Antonio Porchia (1969, 1988), Transparence of the World, by Jean Follain (1969), Dante’s Purgatorio (2000), and poetry by Pablo Neruda and Osip Mandelstam. He has also written plays: Rumpelstiltskin, produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1951; Pageant of Cain, produced by BBC Third Programme in 1952; and Huckleberry Finn, produced by BBC television, 1953. Darkling Child was produced in London by Arts Theatre in 1956, Favor Island was produced by Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1957, and The Gilded West was produced in 1961 in Coventry, England, by the Belgrade Theatre. Merwin’s prose works include The Miner’s Pale Children (1970), Unframed Originals (1982), Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-1982 (1987, edited by Cary Nelson), The Lost Upland (1992), The Ends of the Earth: Essays (2004), and Summer Doorways: A Memoir (2005).


W. S. Merwin received early recognition for his poetry with the selection in 1952 of A Mask for Janus for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and he went on to receive many grants, fellowships, and awards. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, for The Carrier of Ladders (1971) and The Shadow of Sirius (2009). He was the recipient of a Kenyon Review Fellowship (1954), a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1957), an Arts Council of Great Britain bursary (1957), a Rabinowitz Research Fellowship (1961), a Ford Foundation Grant (1964), a Rockefeller grant (1969), the Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1973), and a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1978). His many awards and honors include the Bess Hokin Prize (1962), the Chapelbrook Award (1966), the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine (1967), a PEN Translation Prize for Selected Translations, 1948-1968 (1969), the Shelley Memorial Award (1974), a Bollingen Prize (1979), the Governor’s Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii (1987), and the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry (1990). In 1994, he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for Travels, the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, the Wallace Stevens Award, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. He won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1998), the Gold Medal for poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003), the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award (2003), the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award (2004), the National Book Award for Migration (2005), and the Bobbitt National Prize for Present Company (2006). He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972 and was a special bicentennial consultant (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück in 1999-2000. He served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1998 to 2000. In 2010, Merwin was named poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.

Discussion Topics

How does W. S. Merwin treat the past in any of his poems? What roles do tradition and literature play in his poetry?

Select four different poets whom Merwin mentions in “Lament for the Makers.” Identify for what each poet was mainly known and his manner of death. How does Merwin incorporate each poet’s life and death into his “lament”?

Does William Dunbar’s repeated “Timor Mortis Conturbat me” (the fear of death troubles me) in his sixteenth century poem “Lament for the Makers” relate to Merwin’s “Lament for the Makers”? Does Merwin offer any consolation in his poem? How?

How does Merwin use natural images in “A Given Day”? What does the image “flowers of winter” mean, and how does this image affect the whole poem?

Compare Merwin’s poem “Losing a Language” with the early twentieth century poem “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish? What kind of structural similarities exist between the two poems? Do Merwin’s poetry and images exemplify MacLeish’s idea of what a poem must be?

In “Losing a Language,” what does “when there is a voice at the door it is foreign/ everywhere instead of a name there is a lie” mean?


Byers, Thomas B. What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Byers’s chapter on Merwin, “W. S. Merwin: A Description of Darkness,” focuses primarily on The Lice and attempts to define Merwin’s place in the American poetic tradition descended from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. According to Byers, Merwin sees, as Stevens did, the self as inevitably isolated, even though his poetics recognize the need to see oneself as related to other people and other things in order to become more ecologically aware. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Christhilf, Mark. W. S. Merwin, the Mythmaker. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Christhilf discusses Merwin’s contributions to the postmodernist movement (with The Moving Target) and his assumed role of mythmaker, noting that the poet became ambivalent toward this role in the 1980’s. In a useful discussion, Christhilf traces the mythmaking concern in American poetry across four decades.

Davis, Cheri. W. S. Merwin. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This study makes the poetry and prose of Merwin accessible to the reader new to his work. While well aware of the variety in Merwin’s writing, Davis attempts to reveal what gives it unity. She examines his attitudes toward language and...

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