To the New Year by W. S. Merwin is dedicated to the coming of a new year. It focuses on the beauty of individual moments in life, drawing heavily upon the semantics of nature.
Beginning with sunrise, To the New Year by W. S. Merwin focuses on the coming of a new day. New Year’s Day begins with a ‘first sunlight’, silently touching the tops of the trees. The birds begin to wake, making noise that wakes the world with its coming. Although untouchable, Merwin describes New Year as a feeling, making something ‘possible’ into a series of sounds and sights felt only on this day.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem is split into two stanzas, with Merwin containing 10 lines within the first stanza, and eight in the second stanza. The poem gets shorter as it progresses, with this shift towards a lesser amount of lines perhaps linking to the idea that life is coming to a close. There is a slight atmosphere of mystical curiosity throughout the poem, with Merwin perhaps focusing on the uncertainty of life. The structure is key in representing this, with the changing form reflecting the uncertain aspects of life itself.
One technique that is used throughout To the New Year is enjambment. Considering this is a poem dedicated to a certain date, the use of enjambment could be a reflection of time passing. The flowing meter of the poem, each line following on from the next without hesitation, could mirror the passing of time, the incessant march of time featured through the structure.
Another technique that Merwin uses when writing To the New Year is the direct address, employing the second person pronoun. In addressing the poem to ‘you’, it becomes personal. The ‘you’ he is talking to is actually the rise of the new day, the new year being personified through his direct address. In doing this, Merwin forges a sense of care around New Year, with the time being presented as something familiar and comfortable.
To the New Year Analysis
The poem begins with ‘With what’, the consonance of ‘w’ being featured instantly as To the New Year begins. By employing alliteration at this point in the poem, Merwin suggests a smooth beginning to his poem, the opening reflecting the soft arrival of day. Indeed, the aural harmony of these first two words, softly blending together, allows for an atmosphere of calm to descend on the poem – beginning how it intends to continue.
The focus on ‘stillness’ is the first image of immobility that the poem contains. There is a softness to the presentation of ‘sunlight’, with the world seeming still before the day properly comes. ‘Stillness’ represents a moment of perfection, the slight second before things continue as normal. With everyone asleep, and only nature around, the scene it set perfectly by ‘stillness’, Merwin introducing the tranquil scene.
‘Sunlight’ itself is a representing of something new occurring. The image of beginning again, represented here as a coming of a new day, goes hand in hand with the idea of day and night. They constantly cycle, night morphing to day and back again. By focusing on the moment just before the transformation happens, Merwin is furthering the sense of peace – the immobile world getting ready for another year.
The introduction of ‘sunlight’ which ‘reaches down’ to ‘touch the tips’ of ‘leaves’ is a gentle image. The verb ‘touch’, when combined with the tiny nature of ‘tips’ compounds a sense that the light is incredibly delicate. There is nothing rough or harsh in these moments, just a beautiful image of sun radiating off the tops of trees. By classifying the ‘sunlight’ with this soft image, Merwin draws away from a possible connotation of light, that which dictates light as something abrasive or which seeks to expose. For Merwin, light instead symbolises rebirth, beauty and the calmness of nature.
By introducing the idea of a ‘voice of a dove’, Merwin draws further upon the bodily senses. Before, Merwin was only focusing on what can be seen in this moment where one year becomes another. As we progress further into the poem, the introduction of birdsong, with its connotations of happiness and freedom further the sense of the total peace Merwin feels in this moment. This is a poem in celebration of New Year, the poet focuses on both the visual and aural harmony of the moment.
Yet, he suggests that although there is certainly sound, it is not too loud. Instead, the echo of birdsong is only a ‘hush’, passing over the morning as the day continues to arrive. The softness of sound reflects the images of light Merwin has already conjured – culminating in a beautiful balance of sight and sound.
The manipulation of syntax within the first line of the second stanza places ‘you’, the coming of New Year, as the point of emphasis. In starting the stanza like this, the central theme of the poem, New Year, resurfaces. The syntax which places emphasis on the pronoun associated with the coming moment furthering the importance of New Year.
The focus on the pronoun ‘we’ allows for Merwin to group together humans under the umbrella pronoun. He speaks for us all when he celebrates the potential of a new year – a time to change or reaffirm aspects of our lives.
To Merwin, it does not matter if ‘anyone hears it’, the coming of New Year will still be important and beautiful. It is not a physical thing you can see, only a feeling you can experience. To conclude his poem, Merwin draws a parallel with the concept of a New Year and ‘our hopes’, stating that both are ‘invisible… untouched and still possible.’ The final focus on a moment of possibility mirrors the association that New Year often comes to represent. Another year, another opportunity to change and become who you want to be. Merwin celebrates this time of promise, the harmony a New Year always brings.