Good People

Merwin, W. S.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Apr-13-2001


The speaker muses about his assumption--which he now believes to be incorrect--that "any person with normal feelings" or who was well-educated would understand "pain when it went on before them / and would do something about it." He tries to explain why, in fact, this does not happen. Perhaps "it escapes their attention" or perhaps . . . . The speaker enumerates his vision of massive slaughter and destruction--of children, animals, " victims under the blankets." [20 lines]


In this short poem, the speaker addresses the question of how we can tolerate the suffering around us. Don't we have an impulse and an obligation to take action when we see another individual in pain? Why do we fail to do this? Are we simply unaware, or are we overwhelmed by massive suffering? Or, he implies, mankind is really too bestial and murderous to care.

This poem could be discussed in conjunction with Chekhov's story, An Attack of Nerves (A Nervous Breakdown); W. H. Auden's poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, and the painting to which it refers, Bruegel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; and Wallace Shawn's monologue, The Fever (see this database for annotations.)

Primary Source



December, 1999