W.S. Merwin’s “Retirement”: Late Style and Themes in the 1990s and After
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Reading W.S. Merwin in a New Century : American and European Perspectives
Lateness in a poet’s career has often focused critics on some significant turn: toward themes of mortality, away from earlier generic or formal constraint, and so on. In this chapter, I examine later work of W.S. Merwin, beginning with Travels (published in 1993, when Merwin was 65, the age often associated with retirement). In the volumes he produced in the 1990s and early 2000s, we do indeed find a late turn in Merwin’s work. Unsurprisingly, one thematic turn in this work is retrospective; Merwin looks back over his own life, sometimes with greater autobiographical candor than at earlier moments, and he takes up historical topics with some urgency. Intertwined with themes relating to the personal and public pasts is an increasing interest in the long poem, from “Testament” in The Vixen (1996) to “Lament for the Makers” in The River Sound. These two strains in Merwin’s later work fuse in the epic achievement of The Folding Cliffs (1998), his book-length narrative on nineteenth-century Hawaii, a book that secures his later style and that powerfully connects personal and historical memory, situating Merwin alongside such contemporaries as Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney.