Regarding the War W.S. Merwin’s “When the War is Over” is a currently under appreciated classic. This poem uses knowledge of human nature, unusual rhythm, and the metaphor of war to beautifully illustrate the meaningfulness that exists inseparably within struggle. The reader is left with a sense of hopefulness about man’s ability to transcend the natural limits imposed by mortality and meaninglessness. In order to make a point, Merwin calls some curious natural human tendencies to the reader’s attention. People under stress often assume that when the current struggle is over, unrelated issues will also be brought to some resolution. It is natural that during sickness, poverty, or even literal war, all good things would be associated with relief from that suffering. The poet says that even the air and salmon will be improved after the war. “The silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly” means that even the intangible will be improved by the war’s ending. It doesn’t really matter that these perceptions are inaccurate. The overall victor in the war is not discussed. The poet points to these beliefs about the war’s end in order to reveal something about the observer. People who persevere through harsh battles have the ability to become more hopeful and optimistic when reality is most grim and hopeless. One of the reasons for ending and starting lines in such jarring places is to allow for expanded and shared meanings. For example, the lines “We will be proud”, “We will be proud of course “, and “of course the air will be/ Good” can all be considered together or separate. The rhythm in the lines mimics the speaking pattern of one who is fatigued or wounded, but the words are optimistic. The kind of optimism described here is one that doesn’t deny the worst aspects of human life. The odd cadence and dreamy language serve to make the poem more clear instead of less clear. That is difficult to do. The line “The dead will think the living are worth it.” signifies a turn of subject, and colors the meaning of previous lines. The poet here refers to sacrifices of those who fought before in other figurative or literal wars. If we cannot find value or meaning in our war, it would make their deaths less meaningful. The phrase “we will all enlist again” echoes this idea, that even when largescale suffering and death are involved, the struggle is full of meaning and value. The war is used as a symbol. It is a good metaphor for the sicknesses and horrors that most of us must face at some point in our adult lives. The inherent value in this figurative war is dealt with well. The poem is reminding the readers of the things that are valuable in that struggle. The learning of identity and personal sovereignty are pointed out in the phrase “we will know / Who we are”. Actions that make mortal risks worthwhile are in the line “the dead will think the living are worth it”. These acquisitions of meaning are pointed out well in this poem as being more valuable than the illusory goals that normally drive warfare. The poem ends with a variation of the English phrase: We’d do it all again. This re-enforces everything the poem says by presenting the reader with a picture of someone who has just finished a horrific struggle and reached the stated goal. He is relieved and glad the work is over, yet he would gladly volunteer to do it all again. This final line further illustrates where the poet sees the real value of the proverbial war he has described. The cessation of suffering is not the real goal. The battle itself, which actualizes those who fight, is the goal. It is obvious to most people that no war, literal or figurative, has been ended by fighting. Yet in the mind of the soldier a wish for the end of the war can serve as a motivation to fight. This poem props up and glorifies that self-imposed mythology. This tendency people have, to hold a known untruth as sacred because it leads to meaning and value, is accurately pointed out in this poem as itself sacred and beautiful. This ability to aim belief is the foundation of optimism, hope, bravery, and the power to transcend suffering with meaning. “When the War is Over” by W.S. Merwin, from The Lice. Copper Canyon Press, 1993.


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