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 collection.
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 volumes.