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W. S. Merwin is one of the most prolific contemporary American poets. He writes stylistically diverse poems that frequently display a moral concern for the state of contemporary society and the natural world. In much of his writing, he presents a despairing view of civilization that is only occasionally tempered by expressions of hope.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Unsatisfying Family Life
W.S. Merwin was born September 30, 1927, in New York City. During the early years of his childhood, the Merwin family lived in a “manse,” a Presbyterian parsonage, in Union City, New Jersey, on the Palisades, above Hoboken Harbor and the Hudson River. There, when he was perhaps only five years old, Merwin first began to write creatively—hymns for his father’s church services. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Merwin attended public school in Scranton, a city set in a landscape dominated by coal mines and factories. He writes that his family life, which had never been especially comforting or satisfying for him, deteriorated even further while he was in high school. His mother and father grew apart, and both held themselves remote from Merwin. During World War II, Merwin’s father took a leave of absence from his church and family to serve as a chaplain with American troops in Europe. At about the same time, after graduating from high school in 1943, Merwin left home to attend Princeton University. Thereafter, Merwin only on rare occasions returned to see his parents.
While an undergraduate at Princeton, Merwin did find important mentors who shaped his life. He took classes with and came to know and admire scholar and literary critic R. P. Blackmur. He met and studied with John Berryman, also an instructor at Princeton, who was an established poet. Merwin began to develop a strong interest in both studying and writing poetry. In 1946, at Easter, Merwin visited Ezra Pound in St. Elisabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. The meeting had enormous implications for Merwin’s future as translator, poet, expatriate, and, perhaps, as social activist.
In 1947 Merwin obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton, where he had spent most of his time in the university’s libraries reading unassigned texts by Joseph Conrad and Leo Tolstoy, or at the university’s stables exercising the neglected polo ponies and Reserve Officer Training Corps horses. Probably largely because of the influence of Pound, Merwin returned to Princeton for another year, to pursue a course of graduate study in modern languages. He also spent a summer at McGill University in Montreal studying Old French. At this point, Merwin began actively to make himself into a writer.
Meeting Poets in Europe
In 1949, influenced by Blackmur and Pound, Merwin left the United States and sailed to Europe without the backing of any program or sponsor. He had left graduate school after a year without obtaining a higher degree because he felt certain that he could learn more living abroad among people for whom the Romance languages were living tongues than he could in the classroom. He found employment as a tutor in France and Portugal, in the household of the Princess of Braganza. In 1950 and 1951 Merwin worked as a tutor to the poet Robert Graves’s children while living in the village of Deja on the island of Majorca, Spain. In Deja, receiving some encouragement about his literary aspirations from Graves, Merwin worked at writing the poems that filled his first book. He also began to work on several major translation projects.
In 1951 Merwin moved to London to live and write. That same year he had his first original poem, ”The Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen,” accepted for publication in The Kenyon Review. The next year
Merwin’s first book of poems, A Mask for Janus, was selected for publication by the Yale Younger Poets Series.
In 1954, when he was twenty-six, Merwin bought a ruined farmhouse in southwest France, an area associated with medieval troubadours and Provencal poetry. Though he only stayed in his farmhouse in France for brief periods of time over the next few years, Merwin’s intimate connection with the region and with the people, language, literary history, and natural history of rural France became vital for his intellectual and literary development. Merwin was immediately compelled and haunted by the stony landscape and the stonework of the local architecture. He returned to the region in person and in his writing, again and again, for the next quarter of a century.
From 1951 until 1956 Merwin lived most of each year in London and supported himself by translating Spanish and French classics into radio scripts for the BBC. There, he met and cultivated relationships with several literary persons during these years, most importantly with fellow poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. The writing in Merwin’s first three books, all published when Merwin was in his thirties, is noticeably influenced by the works of other poets.
Return to the United States
In August 1956, with three well-reviewed volumes of poetry to his credit, Merwin flew back to the United States after seven years of residence in Europe. Upon his arrival in the United States, he immediately began actively establishing connections with the American literary organizations that would fund his creative writing for many years to follow. In May 1971 Merwin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his poetry in The Carrier of Ladders (1970). He used the occasion to publicize his pacifist political beliefs. In his brief statement ”On Being Awarded the Pulitzer Prize,” Merwin refused to accept the accompanying stipend, suggesting that the money should go to support resistance to the draft (the war in Vietnam was still continuing, and there were large antiwar demonstrations) and to aid a bystander blinded in a police shooting.
Despite his success in the United States, during most of the 1970s Merwin considered his place of residence to be his old farmhouse in Lot, France, though by the end of the 1970s, he decided not to live any longer in Europe. Still, he was unwilling to endure what he deemed to be the uncomfortable cultural climate of the United States. He lived in Mexico for an extended time during the late 1970s. He also began to make visits to Hawaii, and by 1983 he was residing there. After having lived much of his adult life in England and on the European continent, Merwin’s relocation to Hawaii compelled him to make a place for himself all over again. Merwin was drawn to Hawaii by personal relationships, as well. In 1983 he married Paula Schwartz and settled where his wife and stepchildren lived. Perhaps most important for his poetry, Merwin was confronted in Hawaii by new landscapes and seascapes, new varieties of birds and insects, new sounds and rhythms, and palm trees. All these brought about an evolutionary step forward in Merwin’s literary development.
Continuing a Wide-Ranging Career
If any period of Merwin’s poetic career can be said to have had mixed success, it was the 1980s. Critics who had lauded his poetry earlier in his career were unable to find in Merwin’s nature writing about rural France and remote, exotic Hawaii the challenging innovations and intellectual complexities of his earlier, Pulitzer Prize-winning work. As for popular regard, much of the American public may have been unprepared as yet to embrace the uncompromising ecological messages that Merwin was already sending in his poetry. As he had earlier in his career with his antinuclear and antiwar views, Merwin resorted to journalistic forums to make more explicit his conservationist and environmentalist views. W.S. Merwin’s published works comprehend an extraordinarily wide-ranging selection of languages and human cultural sources. His investigations of “experience” have also been diverse. While Merwin may seem decidedly a denizen of the wide world, he continues to reside on the island of Maui and considers himself a citizen of the United States. Merwin’s literary career has embraced the search for, and apparently the eventual finding of, a purpose, an ethical stance, an imaginative focus that he can believe to be authentic. His writings over the past several decades show that Merwin understands himself to be a lover of nature and an ardent environmentalist.
Works in Literary Context
As a poet and translator, Merwin continues to negotiate, to both popular and critical acclaim, the course of a long, influential, and highly productive literary career. For his literary contributions in poetry, translation, and prose, Merwin has claimed for himself a place among the most widely read and discussed and most frequently imitated writers of his generation. He has also become one of the most honored poets of his generation. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1971, over the past half century he has amassed an impressive array of grants, awards, and prestigious literary distinctions. Always a prolific writer, Merwin continually publishes new work in a wide variety of venues and displays his skill in a range of literary genres.
Taking on Large Themes
Merwin’s poetry, while displaying some consistency of thematic concern, has evolved throughout his career, with nearly each new book displaying a shift in style. This shift seems to answer the need for a voice that is responsive to the human situation and also to the physical world. The poems from Merwin’s early collections are characterized by traditional forms, symbolic imagery, mythical and legendary motifs, and anachronistic language. Many of his themes in these early collections are echoed in his successive works, including explorations of the universal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; the loss of order and the search for identity in contemporary society; and the tensions between spiritual and temporal existence as well as those between art and experience. Merwin’s poetry has consistently addressed the large themes of love, mutability, and mortality, and the relations between language, soul, and nature have always been subjects of his speculations.
Since the late 1990s, Merwin has come to be identified as a “conservationist,” or “environmentalist” or ”environmental activist,” and Merwin’s latest poetry is frequently identified as ”ecopoetry.” While Merwin’s commentators have only relatively recently begun to recognize his often self-proclaimed environmentalist emphasis, the poet’s fascination with nature and his concern for what he insists is a threatened natural world have been parts of his work since almost the beginning of his career. However, in the later stages of Merwin’s career, he has produced the most characteristic environmental and ecopoetry of the last quarter of the twentieth century. In this latest and current phase, in poetry of organic form and in attitudes that are literally rooted in the natural landscapes they reflect, Merwin reveals something approaching reverence for nature, and he displays patent environmentalist and ecological sympathies. In much of his later writing, he tempers a profound sense of loss of the natural world with a passionate appreciation of natural beauty and variety, and he exhibits a rhetorical devotion to educating all who will listen about the need for the conservation of natural diversity.
Works in Critical Context
Merwin has been consistently praised as a technically accomplished writer and has won several prestigious awards for his works, including the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Carrier of Ladders (1970). While he is consistently praised for rejuvenating traditional forms and for continually challenging and developing his technique and themes, critics have lamented the obscure nature of his work.
Reviewers of Merwin’s first three collections—AMaskfor Janus, The Dancing Bears (1954), and Green with Beasts (1956)—faulted him for intellectual self-indulgence. Although a wealth of detailed critical attention has been lavished on the poetry of Merwin’s early years, these poems are seen by some as inferior to his later works. As Clifford Toliver notes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, ”the poetry of Merwin’s initial three books may be the least innovative and is certainly the least characteristic of his oeuvre.” In a similar vein, some critics in the 1960s regarded his evolving style as obscure, but others viewed his new approaches as subtle and rewarding. Scholars have now noted that when Merwin’s works are viewed in their entirety, each successive collection shows distinct developments in style and theme from the previous ones.
Merwin’s despair over the desecration of nature is strongly expressed in his collection The Lice.
If there is any book today that has perfectly captured the peculiar spiritual agony of our time, the agony of a generation which knows itself to be the last, and has transformed that agony into great art, it is W. S. Merwin’s The Lice,” writes Laurence Lieberman in a Yale Review article. He continues:
To read these poems is an act of self-purification. Every poem in the book pronounces a judgment against modern men—the gravest sentence the poetic imagination can conceive for man’s withered and wasted conscience: our sweep of history adds up to one thing only, a moral vacuity that is absolute and irrevocable. This book is a testament of betrayals; we have betrayed all beings that had power to save us: the forest, the animals, the gods, the dead, the spirit in us, the words. Now, in our last moments alive, they return to haunt us. Published in 1969, The Lice remains one of Merwin’s best-known volumes of poetry. His obsession with the meaning of America and its values makes Merwin like the great nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman, writes L. Edwin Folsom in Shenandoah. ”His poetry… often implicitly and sometimes explicitly responds to Whitman; his twentieth century scarcity and soberness—his doubts about the value of America—answer, temper, Whitman’s nineteenth century expansiveness and exuberance—his enthusiasm over the American creation.” Folsom elaborates:
Merwin’s answer to Whitman is begun in The Lice, an anti-song of the self. Here, instead of the Whitmanian self expanding and absorbing everything, naming it in an ecstasy of union, we find a self stripped of meaning, unable to expand, in a landscape that refuses to unite with the self, refuses to be assimilated, in a place alien and unnamable.
Many reviewers consider Travels one of Merwin’s most accomplished collections. In her review of this award-winning volume, Judith Kitchen remarked: ”This collection fascinates me. Throughout, Merwin holds onto an established habit of line but finds in certain more traditional forms and techniques a renewed sense of what the line is capable of accomplishing.” Gerald Stern asserted that among the many lovely collections that Merwin has given us over the many years of his writing, this is the finest.”
- Brunner, Edward J. Poetry as Labor and Privilege: The Writings of W. S. Merwin. Urbana, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
- Bryson, Scott J., ed. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2002.
- Byers, Thomas B. What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Urbana, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
- Christhilf, Mark. W. S. Merwin, the Mythmaker. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1986.
- Frazier, Jane. From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W. S. Merwin. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1999.
- Hix, H. L. Understanding W. S. Merwin. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
- Hoeppner, Edward Haworth. Echoes and Moving Fields: Structure and Subjectivity in the Poetry of W. S.Merwin and John Ashbery. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1994.
- Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, eds. W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Urbana, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- Burt, John. “W. S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs.” Raritan (Winter 2000): 115-135.
- Lieberman, Laurence. ”W. S. Merwin: The Church of Ash.” Yale Review (1973): 602-13.
- John, David. ”The Last Troubadour.” Kenyon Review (1997): 197-203.
- Stern, Gerald. ”The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize—1994.” Nation (December 12, 1994): 733-36.
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