Separation by William Stanley Merwin: Summary and Analysis

Separation is a unique three-line modernist, rather a post-modernist, poem. With its typically open-ended nature, the poem demands a careful and tactful explanation of its understated implications. As the title of the poem suggests, it seems that the speaker (since the poet is a male, this is more likely) has been separated from his partner (most probably his wife, or a beloved).

William S. Merwin (1927-2019)

The separation seems to have always given him trouble; he seems to have been unsuccessful to overcome the torturing effect of her memory, and, most probably a sense of guilt also.

The persona begins by addressing the one who has been separated from him: "Your absence has gone through me/ Like thread through a needle". This probably means that her absence, and the pain of the separation, has penetrated his mind. But beyond this literal meaning, there are many possible symbolic suggestions in the image evoked by the odd simile "like thread..." The thread is something that is soft and flexible. In contrast, the needle is hard, rigid, pointed and capable of hurting. The needle is also something that leads, making way through the cloth and unrelenting on its way; but the thread is something that cannot make its own way. The thread follows the needle, always attached to it; to go through the cloth is not its own decision. Now, what features of the thread and needle among these seem to support the theme of a man's feelings when the 'thread' companion has been separated from him.

 The persona applies the thread/needle metaphor to the present situation of separation. He says that her absence/lack is following him like a thread following a needle. But we can also try whether that can suggest something about the man's relation with the woman even before the separation. Mental images are always suggestive, even beyond what speaker consciously suggests himself. Thus, in the past also, it is likely that the man was rather harsh on her, and now, he realizes that. Of course, it could be partly justified in terms of traditional ideas of male leadership and enterprise in the family and even society. But, it seems that he was too hard, or probably even hurting to her; he seems to have strained her too much.

As she is gone now, the man is thinking over his plight without her: "Everything I do is stitched with its color", that is the color of the thread of absence. He might be implicitly comparing himself with the needle and her with the thread. But now, it is her absence that has begun to work like the thread stitching his life with the tragic sense of her absence. The thread of her absence is binding him, not allowing him to be free. Not only that, it is also stitching everything he does or tries to do. It is possible that he wants to get rid of the influence of the memory; but what happens in reality is that the more one tries to forget something the more he remembers it.

The speaker's present is always stitched to the past; whatever he does, wherever he goes, however much he tries to forget her, it seems that the sense of 'missing' seems to be with him, following him like a thread that follows a needle. The color of the absence, which is a very abstract metaphor, might suggest that the absence is almost visible and tangible.

The poem's extreme economy of words and complexity of expression is typical of modern poetry, but it is also functional in the context of the poem. The speaker seems to be unwilling to confess whatever part of fault he was responsible for behind the separation. One could, in the line of feminist thought, claim that this man has been taught a lesson by the separation, but is still unable to cast his male ego and tell the truth that it was he who brought about the separation and apologize and seek to mend the broken relationship. But any such 'wild' interpretations are left equally possible by the open-ended nature of the poem. It is also equally possible that the man's wife has died and her memory, the past life with her, is stitching his present together with it. What is striking is that this and such modem poems let the free play of the reader's imagination, and that is one of their elements, in place of a definite meaning and the pleasure thereof.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Separation by William Stanley Merwin: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 8 Apr. 2018,

Related Topic

William Stanley Merwin: Biography