W.S. Merwin’s five-line poem “Dusk in Winter” (from The Lice, 1967), contains qualities that helped make Merwin so influential at early mid-career: extreme compression, syntactical and syllabic balance, and a sense of mystery that is enigmatic yet evocative.
Dusk in Winter
The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way
The poem focuses on the moment of sundown beside a stream. But though the atmosphere of the poem is one of stillness, of acute observation, the description is not static. The poem’s speaker asserts that the sun “goes down believing in nothing,” then he “hear[s] the stream running after it,” ending with the notion that the stream has to go “a long way” in its journey. As a complement to that tension between stasis and movement, the poem uses a carefully structured system of syllabic and syntactic patterns to suggest the steady movement of sun and stream and the speaker’s view of that landscape as one that is in equilibrium.
The poem’s first line contains nine syllables, and is composed of three grammatical parts: a phrase that delivers the subject and verb, “The sun sets,” followed by two prepositional phrases: “in the cold without friends.” Each phrase in the sentence contains three syllables, and the slight pause we are aware of between discrete phrases of this sort gives each syntactical unit equal weight, creating a sense of balance in the line, and introducing a pattern that might serve as a signal to the careful reader. Line two begins with a five syllable phrase (“without reproaches”), which tends to lend the phrase extra emphasis since the pattern of “threes” has been broken, somewhat the same effect as if an iambic metrical pattern had been varied. “Without friends” in the previous line had set up the personification of the sun, and “without reproaches” takes the personification further, suggesting that because the sun has done so much for the earth it has no need for any regret, and justifying the emphasis that results from the syllabic pattern having been shifted. The rest of line two breaks naturally into two four syllable chunks: “after all it \ has done for us,” and is followed by a line that re-establishes the pattern of threes that was present in the first line (“it goes down \ believing \ in nothing”). Thus line three is a mirror image of the poem’s first line, again suggesting balance and harmony.
The syntax of these first three lines is so balanced as to play against the syllabic pattern that is at work. Given that Merwin eschews punctuation in his poems, it is often possible to read them in the light of more than one syntactical possibility. That holds true in the first three lines of this poem. Two readings are possible: the first two lines could be read as one sentence (“The sun sets in the cold without friends / without reproaches [,] after all it has done for us[.]”), line three then being a sentence by itself (“It goes down believing in nothing[.]”). Or, the lines could be read this way: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / without reproaches[.] After all it has done for us / it goes down believing in nothing[.]” I find the second reading more satisfying and more likely as the one intended, both for the better syntactical balance it creates, since the two sentences are exactly the same length in their syllable counts, and for its implication that the sun believes “in nothing” despite the fact that it has been so beneficent to the earth during its daily arc: it does what it does because it is the sun, not because it cares for humanity. And read this way, the poem exhibits a kind of reverse echo in its syllabic pattern, since we first have three three-syllable units followed by one comprised of five syllables, then two four-syllable units followed by the same three/three pattern that opened the poem, each of these collective units being composed of sentences that are of the same length. These units do not perfectly mirror each other but they strongly suggest intention on Merwin’s part, a way of establishing a pattern and then reversing it to achieve a different kind of music.
Line four is a complete sentence (“When it is gone \ I hear the stream \ running after it [.]”) and breaks nicely into two four syllable units followed by one consisting of five syllables. Again, that pattern is easy to discern because of the way the sentence is constructed and the white noise between discrete pieces: prepositional phrase followed by subject, verb, and object, followed by a participial phrase. The two units of four are also emphasized as such because every word in them is monosyllabic, contrasted with the two two-syllable words that occur in the five-syllable unit, which tend to emphasize the movement of the stream that they describe. Each of the poem’s first two sentences contains fourteen syllables, and this one contains thirteen, again suggesting that Merwin is consciously striving for a sense of balance in sentence length while working to construct syllabic units that set up patterns only to vary them. Hearing such patterns, the reader comes to anticipate what variations might be wrought with them, creating a type of tension (through “attention” on the reader’s part) that stands apart from the poem’s allusive imagery and metaphor. It is also interesting to note the implication in this line’s opening phrase (“When it is gone”) that the speaker could not hear the stream until the sun was gone. While there was light, his attention was focused on the things he could see—the primary sense. But in the almost-dark, he must re-focus on what he can hear, and what he senses is that the stream is “running after” the sun, suggesting that each of them is alive, never in stasis, whether in relation to the earth or of it.
The poem’s last line reads as two sentences, each containing five syllables (“It has brought its flute[.] It is a long way[.]”) These sentences are delivered in the same declarative, unaffected tone as is employed throughout the poem, but because they achieve this syllabic equity, they beautifully enact the song that the speaker suggests in the trope of the stream’s having “brought its flute” on the “long way” that it must travel. The two phrases that describe the stream’s song are in perfect equilibrium with each other, and again the use of strictly monosyllabic words in this last line and the fact that the poem ends with the spondee (“long way”) suggest that the motion of the stream is steady, unhurried, constant. We even hear repetition and harmony in the parallel structures of the two sentences, the music of the “It has…” and “It is…” phrases.
The syntactic pattern that Merwin employs in “Dusk in Winter” (three sentences of almost equal length, followed by two of exactly equal length), conveys a sense of balance and cohesion that complements the speaker’s vision of the events in the natural world on which the poem focuses. And the poem’s use of syllabic patterns and variations on those patterns establishes a layer of tension that keeps the reader engaged and anticipatory. It is difficult to imagine a five line poem that is able to imply more than this one, and in such subtle ways.