Born in New York City in 1927, W. S. Merwin was selected by W. H. Auden for
the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1952. In his foreword to Merwin's debut
collection, A Mask for Janus, Auden compared Merwin to Robert Graves and praised the collection's technical virtues and awareness of tradition. Auden
also pointed out the mythic quality of the poems, distinguishing between
poetry in which "the overt subject of the poem is a specific experience
undergone by the 'I' of the poem" and that in which "the overt subject is
universal and impersonal." Auden also noted that Merwin conveyed "the
feeling which most of us share of being witnesses to the collapse of a
civilization, a collapse which transcends all political differences and for
which we are all collectively responsible."
In the late 1950s, under the influence of Robert Lowell and his circle,
Merwin's poems became more introspective and took on increasingly personal
subjects. In 1963, the same year his friend and fellow poet Sylvia Plath
committed suicide, he published The Moving Target, a collection of poems responding to the tragic nature of human history and the seeming imminence of apocalypse—a common subject of art and writing in the 1960s. The collection was criticized for being "enigmatic," but also praised for the
"strange kind of simplicity" of the later poems in the collection.
The preoccupations of The Moving Target carried over to Merwin's 1967 collection, The Lice, which manifested itself almost entirely in the "open form" praised earlier. Trading punctuation for "a quality of transparency," the poems enact their subject matter by requiring the reader to navigate syntax without expected assistance. "Punctuation nails the poem down on the page," Merwin writes. "When you don't use it the poem becomes more a thing in itself, at once more transparent and more actual."
The tone and subjects of the poems also reached a stylistic climax which
rose from Merwin's personal experience during the mid-1960s. "Most of The
Lice was written at a time when I really felt there was no point in
writing," Merwin stated in an interview with David L. Elliot. "I got to the
point where I thought the future was so bleak that there was no point in
writing anything at all. And so the poems kind of pushed their way upon me
when I wasn't thinking of writing. I would be out growing vegetables and
walking around the countryside when all of a sudden I'd find myself writing
a poem, and I'd write it."
As Jarold Ramsey states in a critical essay on Merwin's work: "What makes
The Lice special in a decade of writing that will be remembered for its
apocalyptic obsessions is an eerie sense of bearing witness to a world
already in mid-apocalypse. These are not portentous poems so much as
notations on the experience that it is all but over and done with, that we
are merely 'the echo of the future,' and 'tomorrow belongs to no one.'"
Many poems in the collection (which was tentatively titled The Glass Towers while in manuscript form) address nonhuman subjects ("For a Coming Extinction," "In a Clearing," "My Brothers the Silent," "The Herds," "In
Autumn," "Death of a Favorite Bird," and "Looking for Mushrooms at
Sunrise"), and others are overtly political ("Caesar" and "The Asians
Dying")—qualities that make the poems representative of the spirit of the
In 1970, Merwin published The Carrier of Ladders, which completed the trajectory of the poet's evolution the decade before and was honored with
the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. While most of the poems that comprise the
collection are similar to The Lice in subject and style, Merwin's work began to take on a broader emotional range with poems that temper the austerity and hopelessness of the human condition with the comfort of elegy and prayer—a quality that has persisted into each of Merwin's subsequent