Authors: W. S. Merwin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and translator

Author Works


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

Animae, 1969

The Carrier of Ladders, 1970

Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, 1973

The First Four Books of Poems, 1975

The Compass Flower, 1977

Feathers from the Hill, 1978

Finding the Islands, 1982

Opening the Hand, 1983

Koa, 1988

The Rain in the Trees, 1988

Selected Poems, 1988

The Second Four Books of Poems, 1993

Travels, 1993

The Vixen, 1996

Flower and Hand: Poems, 1977-1983, 1997

The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative, 1998

The River Sound: Poems, 1999

The Pupil, 2001


Rumpelstiltskin, pr. 1951 (radio play)

Pageant of Cain, pr. 1952 (radio play)

Huckleberry Finn, pr. 1953 (teleplay)

Darkling Child, pr. 1956

Favor Island, pr. 1957

The Gilded Nest, pr. 1961


The Miner’s Pale Children, 1970

Houses and Travellers, 1977

Unframed Originals, 1982

Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-1982, 1987 (Cary Nelson, editor)

The Lost Upland, 1992


The Poem of the Cid, 1959

Satires, 1961 (of Persius)

Spanish Ballads, 1961

The Song of Roland, 1963

Selected Translations, 1948-1968, 1968

Products of the Perfected Civilization: Selected Writings of Chamfort, 1969 (of Sébastien Roch Nicolas Chamfort)

Transparence of the World: Poems, 1969 (of Jean Follain)

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969 (of Pablo Neruda)

Voices, 1969, 1988 (of Antonio Porchia)

Asian Figures, 1973 (of various Asian pieces)

Selected Poems, 1973, 1989 (of Osip Mandelstam; with Clarence Brown)

Iphigenia at Aulis, 1978 (of Euripides’ play; with George E. Dimock, Jr.)

Selected Translations, 1968-1978, 1979

Four French Plays, 1985

From the Spanish Morning, 1985 (of Spanish ballads, Lope de Rueda’s prose play Eufemia, and Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes)

Vertical Poetry, 1988 (of Roberto Juarroz)

East Window: The Asian Translations, 1998

Purgatorio, 2000 (of Dante)


William Stanley Merwin is one of America’s most outstanding twentieth century poets. He grew up in Union City, New Jersey, and in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Merwin wrote his first verses at age five–hymns for his father’s congregation.{$I[AN]9810001009}{$I[A]Merwin, W. S.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Merwin, W. S.}{$I[tim]1927;Merwin, W. S.}

W. S. Merwin

(© Dido Merwin)

Because what he was writing at the age of eighteen did not seem significant to Merwin, he began translating the work of other poets. At the age of twenty, he received his B.A. in English from Princeton University and then did a year of graduate study there in modern languages. From 1949 to 1956, he lived in Europe, writing and tutoring, among others, the son of the British poet Robert Graves. He also translated Spanish and French classics for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Third Programme. He returned to the United States to become playwright-in-residence at the Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, later, poetry editor for The Nation. He also edited West Wind: Supplement of American Poetry for the London Poetry Book Society in 1961. Merwin was an associate of the Théâtre de la Cité, in Lyons, France, from 1964 to 1965. Back in the United States in the late 1960’s, Merwin spent his time writing, giving poetry readings, and collecting an impressive number of grants and awards.

More mystical than surreal, Merwin’s writing contains symbolic word clusters that use language in a new way. References to beginning and ending, island and sea, door and wall, and stone and earth appear repeatedly. Concerned with the use of language, Merwin laments, in “Losing a Language” (from The Rain in the Trees), “many of the things the words were about/ no longer exist/ the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree/ the verb for I.” Unlike Walt Whitman, who “heard America singing,” Merwin hears America dying. In the midst of that demise, his work probes the themes of isolation and identity.

Acclaim came to Merwin with his first volume, A Mask for Janus. It was selected for the Yale University Younger Poets series by W. H. Auden, who considered Merwin a master of traditional poetic forms and a creator of myth, both impersonal and universal.

Merwin’s next volume, The Dancing Bears, underscores his intense alienation from his fellow humans but softens this feeling with fable and allusion. Green with Beasts continues in this vein, emphasizing the importance of listening in “Learning a Dead Language,” which ends “what passion may be heard/ When there is nothing for you to say.” The Drunk in the Furnace carries the same emotional tones and makes use of the same themes but opens a new and more personal area with a series of family portraits in the concluding poems.

For two years before the publication of The Moving Target, Merwin had written very little poetry; then, suddenly, the first half of the book came within a few weeks. In the last half Merwin introduced a radical change by dropping punctuation; because poetry stems from an oral tradition, Merwin decided, punctuation interferes with its flow. Also, the poems in The Moving Target are more epigrammatic. For example, “From a Series” observes that “the posters have changed/ But the day’s the same.” “We Continue,” dedicated to his longtime friend, poet Galway Kinnell, declares, “Those who believe/ In death have their worship cut out for them.”

The Lice became something of a cult book for young people and has had at least a dozen printings. Its title inspired by Heraclitus, The Lice details how human neglect of forest and animal, of gods and words, has consigned humankind to destruction. Merwin’s next collection, The Carrier of Ladders, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, explores what the past can contribute to the discovery of an individual’s inner self. In Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, Merwin attempts to unleash time, not the past or the future but the present. The Compass Flower contains poems about places and people Merwin loves, but it continues his despondency about human living conditions.

Having moved to Hawaii in the late 1970’s, Merwin turned to the landscape and culture of the islands for additional images and metaphors, as seen in Finding the Islands, a book of haiku-like love poems. Opening the Hand offers a delightful look at Merwin’s childhood, at his acceptance of silence, and at his joy over the intricate interrelation of all things. The Rain in the Trees occasionally proclaims the light side but still explores the dark. In “Knock,” one of the last poems in the collection, the narrator rushes “toward the known world/ which it is hopeless to reject/ and death to accept.” Selected Poems reflects his entire career through the late 1980’s, and The Second Four Books of Poems is a useful collection of his four most powerful books. In Travels, each poem focuses on an individual historical figure, each of whom quested to preserve things that other considered to have no value. The Folding Cliffs is something of an anti-epic, relating the changes–most for the worse–that Hawaii underwent in the 1870’s and 1880’s as the result of European contact. The centerpiece of The River Sound, “Testimony,” is a fifty-eight page autobiographical poem in which Merwin, among other things, lists the things he would bequeath to his friends–moments of time, landscapes, angles of light. The Pupil is a collection of shorter poems capturing transient moments and pinpoint insights.

Merwin’s volumes of stories, essays, and recollections could almost be called poems. He once said that the more charged a piece of prose is, the more it tends toward poetry. Even a casual reader would detect the poetic nature of The Miner’s Pale Children, Houses and Travellers, Unframed Originals, and The Lost Upland.

The works Merwin has translated, spanning centuries and originally written in various different languages, reveal him to be a versatile translator. Indeed, he became the most prolific, respected, and successful translator of his generation, and in 1968 he received the PEN Translation Prize for his Selected Translations: 1948-1968. While writing for the theater is not Merwin’s primary focus, his productivity in this area should be noted. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, he wrote three original plays and four adaptations from the work of foreign playwrights. In 1987 Merwin was granted the Governor’s Award for Literature from the state of Hawaii and in 1988 was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, both fitting tributes to a poet of Merwin’s stature.

BibliographyByers, Thomas B. “W. S. Merwin: A Description of Darkness.” In What I Cannot Say: Self, Word, and World in Whitman, Stevens, and Merwin. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. 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 recognizes 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.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 silence, his concern for animals and ecology, and his beliefs about poetry and nothingness. Chapters 1 through 5 look at his books of poetry from A Mask for Janus through The Compass Flower. Chapter 6 discusses the prose poetry of The Miner’s Pale Children and Houses and Travellers.Frazier, Jane. From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W. S. Merwin. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999. An anlysis of images of nature in Merwin’s poetry. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Hix, H. L. Understanding W. S. Merwin. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Hix argues that despite its reputation for difficulty, Merwin’s verse is clear and direct. Close readings of Merwin’s verse reveal the emergence of such dominant themes as apocalypse, ecology, society, and place.Nelson, Cary, and Ed Folsom, eds. W. S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. The editors provide a good introductory essay, comparing Merwin to Pound (both students of romance languages), William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. William H. Rueckert’s notes are a help to readers of The Lice, and Folsom discusses Merwin’s change in style beginning with The Compass Flower. Includes comprehensive bibliographies, full notes, and a thorough index.Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. The chapter on Merwin traces how the poet’s initial “poetics of absence” has slowly transformed “into an ecological poetics of wakefulness.” Scigaj connects Merwin’s growing understanding of stressed ecosystems to his aesthetic experimentation.
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