W S Merwin, “Elegy for a Walnut Tree”

Another truly extraordinary poem in The Moon Before Morning is “Elegy for a Walnut Tree”. You can link to it here.

Addressing a tree as “old friend” – how audacious a use of the pathetic fallacy is that! But the way Merwin does it makes us almost forget that he isn’t talking to a person. The words are so simple, so vivid, so bare of emotive trickery and at the same time carry such powerful emotional implications, that the idea that it’s strange to address these thoughts to a tree is almost swallowed up by a sense of how compelling the thoughts themselves are, and the feeling that for Merwin this is not a mere literary device but a way of seeing the world. In the light of this vision, everything seems to glow with sentient life, radiating consciousness and purpose, and the whole world and the tree itself to reflect our own awareness of passing time, our joy in strength, our sadness at loss, our capacity for love, together with the tree’s own resilient vitality and the mysterious sense that it’s more in tune with the pulse of the larger life than we are.

Almost swallowed up. The qualification is important because the sense of joy and enhanced vitality that the poem leaves us with must partly derive from our awareness of how rare it is to be brought by the magic of poetry to share such a way of seeing and being, a way so full of tenderness and humility, of acceptance of the order of things, of gratitude and joy that almost dispel the suggestion  of ruefulness while leaving just enough of it, to my mind, to give the poem emotional friction and traction.



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