‘Early One Morning’ by W.S. Merwin is a short poem that showcases what seems to be an older man who is stuck in reminiscing about his younger days. From the lines, the reader can infer that the past experiences of this man were good, but that the best aspects from his past have potentially vanished overtime to leave him lonely and nostalgic. Worse, by the end of the poem, the evidence is provided that could indicate the man does not have much longer to live, which strengthens an already saddened atmosphere to the poem.
Merwin has crafted a poem in ‘Early One Morning’ that takes the joy of “Memory” and parallels it with desperation and moroseness that only come through that parallel. If the narrator had not spent so much time looking back, after all, perhaps he could have found more joy in his presence. Such is not to be though, and there is no reprieve for his sorrow beyond the memories that, by comparison, would worsen his sorrow. You can read the full poem here.
Early One Morning Analysis
Here is Memory walking in the dark
there are no pictures of her as she is
“Memory” is addressed with a capitalized first letter in these beginning lines, which indicates it is not being treated as a common concept. Rather, “Memory” is being referred to as if it were an actual being with a personality and livelihood, one who is female given the use of “she” as the chosen pronoun. This boosts the level of importance that “Memory” has for this narrator, whether that importance is for “Memory” in general or for one specific “Memory.” This is a fitting stance since “Memory” is the focus of the poem as the narrator holds to recollections of the past in a desperate, nostalgic manner—elements that become more and more apparent as the poem continues.
There is a closeness to the past that the narrator showcases in choosing to begin the poem with the word, “Here.” What the choice entails is that the “Memory” is so near to the narrator, he can use the simple word of the location to indicate the placement of the “Memory.” The past he is relishing in is “walking in the dark,” and that simple phrase provides the reader with two additional details. First, the “Memory” is not rushing, giving evidence that the narrator is taking his time in traveling through his past thoughts and experiences. Second, the “Memory” is traveling “in the dark.” This lack of light hints that the “Memory” is not something that just anyone would see since it can easily go unnoticed. The narrator, however, knows to look, and he sees.
One further concept at work in these lines is that the narrator points out that “there are no pictures of her as she is.” This idea cements that the narrator is in fact looking toward the past since there is no vision of how “she is,” meaning the present is not a valid notion concerning the “Memory.” What “is” is not important, only what was.
the coming day was never seen before
the dreams have left with no sound of farewell
Line 3 continues with the notion of the past being the focus by ruling out the future. Specifically, “the coming day was never seen.” Since “the coming day” relates to a moment that has yet to arrive, the idea that it “was never seen before” expresses that the future is not relevant. Notable as well is that to this “Memory[‘s]” timeframe, the narrator’s present moment as he watches the “Memory” resurface is a future concept. Everything beyond the “Memory[‘s]” real-life occurrence is as if it never happened, making it the only concept worth reveling in for the moment.
The narrator’s desire to revel in that past experience is understandable, given the information brought by Lines 4 and 5, since the language makes it clear that past goals and beauties have faded over the years. According to the narrator, “the stars have gone into another life,” and “the dreams have left with no sound of farewell.” The departure of these elements expresses “dreams” and ambitions, perhaps even friends and loved ones, that have been lost over time. In fact, the wording indicates that both categories of loss have occurred. Loved ones departing would fit with the concept of “the stars hav[ing] gone into another life” as that would suggest that one “life” has passed, and the goals and “dreams” that went missing are specifically addressed with Line 5’s declaration of “the dreams… leav[ing] with no sound of farewell.”
What this entails, particularly since those “dreams” vanquish “with no sound of farewell,” is that they were lost to the narrator in such a vivid way that no possible hope of achieving them existed after their departure. Since so much has been lost in such distinct manners, it again makes sense that the narrator wishes to live in a “Memory” of when possibility and togetherness existed in a way that they cannot in his current life.
This pair of lines shifts the narration from personal and intangible concepts, like “the coming day” and “dreams,” to something as obscure and bizarre as “insects.” Those “insects” can feel like an odd addition to the poem, but there is sensibility in their addition. Those “insects” could represent the way the narrator feels when morning arrives and he has to leave behind his nostalgic recollections. This concept is supported in the idea that the “insects wake,” like the narrator might after a night of reminiscing, and when they do, they are “flying up with their feet wet.”
When applied to how the narrator would feel after “wak[ing]” from a night of past recollections, this figurative stance is understandable. Realistically, a night spent wading through past “dreams” could lead to a morning of feeling as if he were walking on air, or “flying up,” with his mind still dabbling in past goodness so that his “feet [are] wet” in past innocence and “dreams.” It would make sense as well that the narrator who yearns for his past would want to “take the night along with” him when the morning comes to bring him from his nighttime “Memor[ies].” Rather than step willingly into a present world where “dreams” are gone and people are lost, the narrator wants to stay a moment longer in his past wonders.
The question remains though of why the narrator uses “insects” to bring this concept into focus, and the answer could be in the very being of “insects.” They are small creatures that can easily go overlooked or unwanted, and this could be a reflection of how the narrator sees himself in his present state. That notion strengthens the reasoning for his resolve to remain in the reminiscing aspects of his night since, by comparison, his past details are more preferable to present ones.
Memory alone is awake with me
knowing that this may be the only time
Once more, “Memory” is treated like a being, one that is the only one “awake with” the narrator. That notion of “Memory” remaining as the narrator’s only company could mean a number of things. For instance, the narrator could feel lonely in his older years, perhaps living alone with few loved ones who come to visit him. If such is the case, then “Memory” is his best company because it is his only company.
The concept could also mean he is alone only in regard to this reminiscing, which would not mean that he is living alone or existing without friendship or care. It would state, rather, that he does not include others on his nostalgic journeys.
When added to the aforementioned idea of “insects” and “stars hav[ing] gone into another life,” evidence does exist within the poem to indicate that he is literally alone in his life, and that idea makes his desire to venture into “Memory” feel even more desperate as little exists in his present life to bring him any sort of happiness.
The final line has a haunting feel to it when the narrator expresses that this “Memory” journey “may be the only time” he is able to take it. This feels like a declaration that he has grown older and suspects that any night could be his last to live. Added then is another layer of sadness to this overall situation, and the reader can depart from the poem while feeling the burden brought on by this narrator’s dilemma. His future is potentially non-existent in this life, and his presence feels lonely and wanting. All he has, it seems, are his past and “Memory” that put his present and future to sad shame.
About W.S. Merwin
W.S. Merwin is an American poet and novelist who came to notoriety in the twentieth century. His writing has been so acclaimed, in fact, that he was awarded two Pulitzer prizes among many other honors and titles. Additionally, he was the U.S. poet laureate for more than one year. Overall, he is one of the most noteworthy writers of literature within the last hundred years, and he even assisted Robert Graves’s son in his educational endeavors. Through his educating, traveling, and writing, he has earned every ounce of notoriety that is attached to his name.