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.  


One brave poet: Osip Mandelstam

I’ve always hankered after Russian literature since first imbibing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a teenager, supplemented by later readings in Chekhov and Pasternak.  For a while, I even took up Russian and can still read the cyrillic script.  On several occasions, I’ve taught Russian literature:  Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Cherry Orchard.  In 1986, I was offered a government stipend for an advanced seminar in Russian literature, though I turned it down because of other interests at the time.

Tolstoy House
Tolstoy House

In 2000, I took a group of students to Russia in the cruel month of January.  We saw where Chekhov composed most of his plays and stories during his short life.  One of my students was allowed to play his piano.  In St. Petersburg, we visited the apartment in which Dostoevsky spent his final years and saw the desk on which he wrote his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov.  My own big moment came when we traveled 120 miles southwest of Moscow, traversing cratered roads of an unraveling post-Soviet nation, to Tula and nearby Nastaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s lovingly preserved residence.

Osip Mandelstam
Osip Mandelstam

Though the triad of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov spring to mind when we think of Russian literary prowess, the truth is that poetry may be its greatest legacy, beginning with Pushkin and continuing into our modern era with poets like Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky and Mandelstam.  I think it was Mandelstam who said that Russia is the only country that takes poetry seriously enough that you can get killed for it, which is just what happened to Mandelstam in the Stalin purge of 1937.

I started up again about Russian poetry after reading a 2011 GuernicaNadezhda Mandelstam interview with my favorite contemporary American poet, W. S. Merwin, in which Osip Mandelstam’s name came up in connection with the complexities of translation.  Initially exiled, Mandelstam  covertly composed subsequent poetry in his head, repeating his verse to his wife, the remarkable Nadezhda Mandelstam, who committed them to school exercise notebooks and then to memory in the event of police seizures, preserving his legacy following his death in the Gulag in 1938.

She would later write two remarkable books (Against All Hope and Hope Revived) in the late 1960s, detailing the sordid story of Stalinist repression of the arts and her efforts to preserve her husband’s mature legacy.  It was thought that his work was done after 1928 prior to his initial exile to Voronezh, but thanks to Nadezhda, 200 of his exile poems have survived. Today, Mandelstam is largely regarded as Russia’s principal twentieth century poet, though he died at just 47.

Here is his most famous poem, clearly an attack on Joseph Stalin, that began his troubles.  Mandelstam never cowered defending freedom.  At the outset, you should be aware that poetry generally suffers greatly in translation.  In Russian, it packs a wallop with its density of nuance that the average reader would pick-up on immediately.  (See notes.)

We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away. (1)
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man. (2)
His greasy fingers are thick as worms, (3)
his words weighty hammers slamming their target. (4)
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker, (5)
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.


1.    our words are inaudible from ten steps away:  Need to be judicious in conversation.  Stalin was reputed to use listening devices in the Kremlin to check on colleagues.

2.   mountain man:  allusion to Stalin’s coarse background.

3.   greasy fingers:  It was widely circulated that Stalin employed listening devices to keep tabs on his Kremlin colleagues.

4.   his words weighty hammers:  Stalin had a marked Georgian accent.

5.   cockroach mustache:  obviously refers to Stalin’s landmark mustache.  Derives from a Russian fairy tale in which a cockroach and a cat confront one another.

Mandelstam wasn’t your likely hero.  Frail with a weak-heart and clearly aware of the dangers of the Stalin regime, he nonetheless devoted his art, not only to beauty, but to human freedom.  Somehow I had missed out on him in my Russian pursuits.  Maybe now I can make amends.


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