Elsewhere, I have applied T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” to the life work of a poet. When we discover a previously overlooked work by a poet, that work has the potential to recast one’s perception of writer’s oeuvre–or as Eliot says, “the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values, of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted” (112).
Such is the case with one of Merwin’s translations in its relation to his work on whales.
A month or so ago, I received an email from a scholar who loves whales, reads Merwin, and happens to be my brother. He brought to my attention Merwin’s translation of “Patience: A West Midlands poem of the Fourteenth Century.” I had not yet included the translation on the bibliography of Merwin Studies, but it is there now.
Readers of Merwin’s whale poems may appreciate not only the poem, but also Merwin’s note at the end. Merwin shares his experience first reading Patience in college, when he “blundered through the Middle English as well as [he] could.” One phrase from Patience “never left” him, though, and it “continued to echo and brought [him] back to the poem and others of its time”—the phrase “Like a mote in through a minster door” (7).
The phrase directs the imagination to envision the vast jaws of Leviathan swallowing Jonah, just like, of course, a tiny mote floating through the vast doors of a cathedral. And I can’t help but think of Dickinson’s certain slant of light.
The juxtaposition evokes the sublime.
And so, along with “Leviathan” (Green with Beasts, 1956), “For a Coming Extinction” (The Lice, 1967), “The Shore” (Opening the Hand, 1983), and others—the translation of Patience contributes to Merwin’s work on whales.
Likewise, it further affirms how a listening to language cultivates an attentiveness to, in this case, the sublimity of whales.
Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Eds. Dana Gioia, Meg Schoerke, and David Mason. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 111–16. Print.
Merwin, W. S. “Patience: A West Midlands Poem of the Fourteenth Century.” American Poetry Review 31.4 (2002): 3–7. Print.