W.S. Merwin

Chord by W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin’s ‘Chord’ depicts the life and death of John Keats in parallel to the cutting of Sandalwood trees in Hawaii. It centers on the theme of exploitation vs. inspiration.

‘Chord’ is a thought-provoking piece that hits right at the chord of two human activities revolving around nature. One act includes Taking inspiration from nature. The other one is the cutting of trees or the destruction of nature. In this way, Merwin describes how creation and destruction go simultaneously without hampering each other.

Chord by W.S. Merwin


‘Chord’ by W.S. Merwin depicts the memorable events of John Keats’ life alongside the felling of Sandalwood trees in Hawaii after the British colonization.

In music, a chord means a group of notes sounds together harmoniously. The title of the poem describes the harmony in creation and destruction. This kind of amalgamation creates rather an unpleasant note of human history. Throughout this piece, Merwin alludes to a number of Keatsian poems and juxtaposes the main ideas with the gradual destruction of the Sandalwood forest in Hawaii. Lastly, the poet notes how one can decode this intricate language of human action.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-10

While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests

while he listened to the nightingale they heard their own axes


hateful to them

while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers

Merwin’s poem strikes the very chord of human actions and their consequences. Some consequences have a greater impact on humanity. In contrast, some have greater implications on their future and, most importantly, on earth. To be specific, this piece alludes to the life, works, and death of John Keats. It juxtaposes the steps of clearing the Sandalwood forest in Hawaii during the British colonial era.

These events occurred simultaneously in the 19th century. The difference lies in the locations where these events took place. Keats wrote his poem in England, and the colonizers cut down the trees in Hawaii. The former took inspiration from nature, and the latter hacked its roots.

Merwin specifically alludes to Keats’ one of the greatest poems, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. In the poem, Keats talks about listening to the melodious song of the nightingale. While he was writing about nature, some opportunistic men heard their own axes echoing through the Sandalwood forest.

In the following lines, Merwin taps on a number of ideas from Keats’ ode and juxtaposes them with the gradual destruction of the forest. After that, he alludes to another poem of Keats, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. He says, when Keats was amazed at classical art, people bled under red flowers.

Lines 11-21

while he dreamed of wine the trees were falling from the trees

while he felt his heart they were hungry and their faith was sick


when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down

and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

The following lines of the poem, ‘Chord,’ refer to specific events of Keats’ life that include his love affair, suffering from tuberculosis, and his last days. In the beginning, Merwin contrasts human emotions. When Keats was focused on spiritual pleasures, the colonizers were satisfying their monetary hunger.

While Keats’ health gradually broke down, the same happened with the Sandalwood forest in Hawaii. Most importantly, while he left a great body of his works behind, hungry minds ransacked nature and wage wars. Decades after the poet’s death, Merwin interprets these human events in his poem ‘Chord’.


This piece is completely unconventional in nature. There is no use of punctuation marks, stanza division, or sentence structure. Each line begins in a similar pattern. The first part of a line specifically deals with some lines of the Great Odes of Keats, and the next part is about the cutting of trees. The poem is in the free-verse. It means there is a regular rhyme scheme or meter. Besides, it is written from the third-person point of view.

Literary Devices

Merwin uses the following literary devices in his poem ‘Chord’.

  • Enjambment: This device is used in lines 2-6. The usage of enjambment makes readers go through these lines collectively to understand the overall idea.
  • Anaphora: It occurs throughout the text. The poet begins each line with the term “while.” There is only one exception. It can be seen in the last three lines.
  • Antithesis: Each line contains two diametrically opposite ideas. For instance, “writing,” a symbol of creation, is juxtaposed with the idea of “cutting,” a symbol of destruction.
  • Allusion: There is an allusion to a number of Keats’ odes in this poem. For example, the line, “he listened to the nightingale,” alludes to Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.


What is the poem ‘Chord’ about?

William Stanley Merwin’s ‘Chord’ juxtaposes the events from Keats’ life and death with the gradual destruction of the Hawaiian Sandalwood forest in the colonial era. He believes creation and destruction are like two notes that make a strange kind of music without any harmony.

When was ‘Chord’ published?

The poem was first published in 1988. It appeared in William Stanley Merwin’s collection of poetry, The Rain in the Trees.

What type of poem is ‘Chord’?

It is a free-verse lyric poem that is written in an unconventional style. The text contains a total of 21 lines that are grouped into a single stanza. Besides, there is no regular rhyming pattern or metrical scheme in the poem.

What is the theme of ‘Chord’?

The central theme of the poem revolves around creation vs. destruction. It also includes the themes of inspiration, men vs. nature, and greed.

Similar Poems

Readers who liked the poem ‘Chord’ could read other W.S. Merwin poems. Here are a few poems that are similar to the themes present in this piece.

You can also explore these inspirational nature poems.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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