W S Merwin “Long Afternoon Light” – 2

You can link to “Long Afternoon Light” by clicking here.

“Long Afternoon Light” speaks to and eludes the understanding, feeds it and makes it hungry for more by a remarkable combination of clarity and uncertainty. Reading it, the boundaries of sentences and the meanings of words keep shifting and shimmering in our minds.

Take the title. It creates a visual, spatial impression of the way light falls in the late afternoon, with long sloping beams stretching between shadows, and at the same time the temporal sense of “long” suggests how time seems to stretch out and slow as a summer afternoon lingers into evening. And there’s another, deeper equivocation. In the perspective of a lifetime or even a year any afternoon is brief, only “a moment of what is ours” a “moment that slips away”. And yet in that same perspective it’s also long and it does “stay” if it’s remembered, as this one is.

Or take the word “you”. It’s important to the whole feeling of the poem that it speaks to a “you” and about a “we”. This contributes to the hushed, confiding tone. At the same time, it’s not at all clear who “you” and “we” refer to. It’s as though the poem is a palimpsest of different poems with different addressees, a layering of poems that shift into and out of each other but fundamentally all mean the same thing. “You” can be taken as referring to the “small roads”, animated and addressed in the second person in the same way as the walnut tree is animated and addressed in “Elegy for a Walnut Tree”. Or we can think of it as referring to an actual person, someone with whom the poet shared the long afternoon and the sight of the roads. “We” can refer to the poet and the roads or to the poet and this mysterious other person, but to me it seems to be primarily a generic “we” referring to people in general. There are other examples of overlapping syntax, of statements that vary according to where we place the punctuation.

This kind of analysis may seem like a lot of fuss about nothing and in a sense it is. I think it’s important that we have a general sense of these shifting, intertwining, mutually enhancing meanings and suggestions, but not that we pin each particular one down.

The idea that everything in the poem seems to converge on or radiate out from, and which it evokes in a multitude of different ways, is the paradoxical nature of our relationship to experience and to time.

Merwin doesn’t just talk about this idea, he makes us feel it in the texture of the poem, above all by how he almost freezes the moment in our imaginations and simultaneously tells us that it is only a moment and is passing. He suspends it in our minds by the slow, voluptuous way he caresses sounds and images, and by the way he dissolves the finite progression of syntax into what I called a flow in my earlier note on this poem, though really it’s more like the stirring of a pool. If you attempt to divide the poem into coherent sentences they seem to keep losing their way, wandering into parentheses and refusing to progress, as the initial statement about or apostrophe to the small roads refuses to yield any direct statement about or to them, or to arrive at what sentence analysis would call a main clause.

That on its own would be enough to create a very strong double sense of the experienced or remembered moment as both inside and outside of time, simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, but there’s more to it. There’s a remarkably effective but unsignalled shift in tense. The poem starts in the past. After line six it’s in the present. This shift isn’t exactly illogical but the lack of punctuation makes it seem like a dissolving of temporal boundaries rather than a stepping from one bounded time frame to another. We’re back in the moment as it was, simultaneously past and present. In the same breath, Merwin tells us that the moment will slip away and makes us feel it will never be lost because it has become a part of the person who experienced it. There’s a hint of pathos in “we believe it as the moment slips away” but this hint is immediately submerged in the awesome beauty of the ending. Here light and darkness mingle to suggest how even as death approaches the speaker’s mind is filled with a sense of the perpetual renewal of life, both in memory and the surrounding world. [1]








[1] The poem is fourteen lines long and the tense shift divides it into movements of six and eight lines. This subtle and muted echo of sonnet form underpins its marvellous, shimmering composure.


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