Of Paradise Lost: W. S. Merwin’s “After the Dragonflies”


“After the Dragonflies” by W. S. Merwin

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing
the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way
when we appeared in their eyes
we were strangers
they took their light with them when they went
there will be no one to remember us

When I lived in Kentucky and kept up a flower garden, I’d hear every now and then a whizzing sound above my head, look up, and see a dragonfly moving swiftly to snag its mid-air prey between its long legs. I never thought much about them as such. They were simply there.

I regret that now and am unlearning my indifference. Dragonflies, like many other insects, are disappearing, a reality Merwin hints at in this melancholic poem, treating mutability and, with it, loss; a nature tapestry vanishing before our very eyes.

The journal Biological Conservation informs us that 40% of insect species, and that’s in the millions, are in serious decline. “If we don’t stop it, entire ecosystems will collapse due to starvation,” says University of Sydney researcher Francisco Sánchez-Bayo.  Our fate will be to perish with them.

Lamentably, dragonflies, these bejeweled aerial acrobats, are among those insects suffering decline. Fundamental inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems, their loss would have immeasurable consequence.  Along with climate change, habitat encroachment and degradation have contributed to their falling numbers.

Folklore has it that dragonflies are emissaries of good fortune. And so it seemed for some 300 million years. Members of the phylum Arthropoda, they comprise some 5,000 species in varied sizes and hues.

Merwin’s poem, abjuring punctuation to simulate conversational flow, employs a temporal schema of past, present, and future to depict the incipient fate of dragonflies and, by implication, of other fated creatures, once of prodigious number, now facing not only decline, but future extinction. Contrast looms large in the poem’s time’s sequences.

The poem opens with the persona’s conjecturing past aeons before Man, when dragonflies “were as common as sunlight,”the double use of “were” in the opening lines contrasting their present decline. The simile associating their once prodigious numbers to the sun’s plentitude dazzles in its originality.

Employing kinetic imagery, the persona visualizes a former halcyon indulgence of lingering dragonflies amid time’s seeming suspension: “hovering in their own days/backward forward and sideways.”

Or like the varied probings of memory: “as though they were memory.” And, I might add, like the poem in its past, present and future interweave.

The jarring “now” in its emphatic positioning at the beginning of the fourth line transitions readers fully into the present with its glaring contrast.

Despite the miraculous artistry wrought by evolutionary mechanisms over vast stretches of time, there exist “grown-ups” who, suffering a disconnect with nature and “hurrying” to other pursuits, have never seen a dragonfly

That “they do not know what they/ are not seeing,” harbors the poem’s concluding warning. Not only does the present suffer a nature deficit, but future generations may never know dragonflies existed.

Exiled in the present, humans lack cognizance of that primordial garden, if not Edenic paradise, of teeming dragonflies, diaphanous creatures born of water, instinctual, spontaneous, integral eco entities not knowing Man:

the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way

The alienation motif follows with Man’s trespass. In time’s vast unfolding, the dragonflies had not known us: “when we appeared in their eyes/we were strangers.”

Unable to live in a human world, it’s as though they took flight, with consequential, if not incalculable loss for mankind. This is our future and the penultimate line stuns: “they took their light with them when they went.”

Creatures of a once thriving abundance, the dragonflies are extinct! We have come full circle, the sun’s plentitude of the opening line gone dark.

On a scientific note, dragonflies are often depicted as translucent creatures associated with the sun. Merwin, a mindful observer of nature and diligent keeper of a garden, was aware of this: “the veins in a dragonfly’s wings/were made of light.”

Biologically, we know they possess a variety of opsin genes that encode light sensors  (science.com

The poem’s last line serves as warning: “there will be no one to remember us,” signifying our own ultimate demise, both as individuals and as species, as our survival cannot be severed from nature’s fate. 

It also returns us to the “After” of the title, perhaps initially problematic. Now we know its why. In the immediate of a world devoid of dragonflies, we will have suffered a grievous loss beyond boundary. Merwin’s gift lies in making us feel that loss.

If nature’s eclipse emerges as seemingly ineluctable in this eco-poem, its melancholy consequence lies with Man as its implied source.

Merwin wrote this poem in 2016 when in his late eighties, going  blind, and just three years before his death.  If you look at the poem’s dictional element closely, you’ll notice its many verbal seeing and light allusions, beginning with the sun simile of the poem’s opening. The poem’s imagery is consistently visual.

Dragonflies are often described in biology depictions as translucent, their heads virtually a gigantic eye.  

–rj

Dickinson Revisits Keats: “I Died for Beauty”

dickinson2I died for Beauty–but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining room

He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For beauty”, I replied–
“And I–for truth–Themself are One
We brethren, are”, He said–

 And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night–
We talked between the Rooms–
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names–

Emily Dickinson’s favorite poets were John Keats and Robert Browning. Certainly, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “I Died for Beauty” are indubitably linked through their exploration of Platonic idealism in regard to Beauty and Truth.

For Keats, Beauty becomes synonymous with Art, or Imagination. When he famously offers near the ode’s end his maxim, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he means that what the imagination perceives as real is both beautiful and true.  Putting it another way, Art is Truth beautifully rendered.

Dickinson, in contrast, exhibits a more modern, complicated sensibility in her latent suspicion of a priori reasoning. Truth and Beauty, undefined in her poem, are relative terms, not verities. Although she may initially appear accepting of their affinity (i.e., “kindred”) a closer reading indicates that their synthesis isn’t a given. Why are the two entities in separate rooms?  Why must they converse “between the rooms”? In short, they’re separate bed fellows.

What does Dickinson connote in the first speaker’s use of “died,” subsequently rendered “failed” by the second speaker?  If the two entities are related, it consists in their earnest pursuit of absolutes, or closure within the context of human experience. Ironically, failure, not success, informs their liaison in death as we’ll see in the poem’s conclusion.

For the Platonist Keats, their proffered unity transcends mortality.  Not so for Dickinson’s poem in which Truth and Beauty, never articulated, nor the context of their demise, metamorphose into indecipherable headstones, swallowed up by the anonymity of death and its oblivion:

We talked…
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names.

In sum, death abrogates every human quest, even the most noble.

–rj

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