The weight of those losses, Mr. Merwin said long afterward, pervaded every aspect of the family culture. As he wrote, making a rare foray into rhyme, in “Testimony,” from his 1999 volume “The River Sound”:
those were her deaths before my day
by that time she could turn to hear
outside the voices on her way
a stillness only partly here
and whatever she would hold dear
giving herself up to its care
she looked beyond it without fear
toward what she felt was waiting there
Young William was reared in Union City, N.J., and Scranton, Pa., where his father, a Presbyterian minister, preached. Besotted with language from a very young age, he wrote his first verse, hymns for his father’s congregation, at 5. (“I was very disappointed that they weren’t used in church,” Mr. Merwin told The Paris Review in 1987.)
To their son’s early dismay, his parents were possessed of incurious minds and unpoetic souls. As Mr. Merwin wrote in “Native Trees”:
Neither my father nor my mother knew
the names of the trees
where I was born
what is that
I asked and my
father and mother did not
hear they did not look where I pointed
surfaces of furniture held
the attention of their fingers
and across the room they could watch
walls they had forgotten
where there were no questions
no voices and no shade
Worse still, the elder Mr. Merwin was capricious and cold.
“During my early childhood he had been distant, unpredictable and harsh,” Mr. Merwin wrote in his memoir “Summer Doorways” (2005). “He had punished me fiercely for things I had not known were forbidden, when the list of known restrictions was already long and oppressive. I was told regularly that I loved him, as I was told that I loved God and Jesus, and I did not know at the time that the names for much of my feeling about him were really dread and anger.”
Small wonder, perhaps, that the son grew up to become an explorer of absence and a repairer of dissolution and ruin — on his Hawaiian homestead; of a derelict stone farmhouse in southwest France, where he lived at midcentury with his second wife, Dido Milroy; and, to the extent that the medium affords such redress, in poetry.
At 16, Mr. Merwin entered Princeton on a scholarship. There he began to read and write poetry in earnest, studying with the poet and critic R. P. Blackmur and his teaching assistant, a young poet named John Berryman.
At 17, during World War II, Mr. Merwin enlisted in the Navy but realized immediately that he had “made a terrible mistake,” as he told NPR in 2008. A pacifist, he declared himself a conscientious objector and was consigned for about a year to the psychiatric ward of a Boston naval hospital.
Returning to Princeton, he received his bachelor’s degree in 1948; married his first wife, Dorothy Jeanne Ferry; and stayed on to do graduate work in Romance languages.