(In August 1956, the American poet and playwright W. S. Merwin flew home after seven years in Europe. The notes that follow are taken from a journal he kept at the time.)
August 27, 1956, A barber shop in St. John’s Wood
They say that after seven years every cell in your body has changed. You are a different person.
I wish I could remember what day it was, in July 1949, that I landed in Genoa. Or the day (one or two days before?) when we first came in sight of the Spanish coast.
Strange, now I am going back, to think that I have been in Europe without a break, ever since I was a minor. Ever since I was twenty-one.
On the chart one does not see the long line of wanting to go back. Beginning in my case before I set out, and rising through delight and hostility and wonder and everything that has been the experience of Europe. The line rising clear off the chart at last and stabbing into the air above it, without footing, but without coming down, for how many years now?
Part of the confusion, once the desire to go back got off the chart, arose from the suspicion that this was simply, at least in part, the first shock of maturity: a realization that home, where you grew up and belonged—belonged with and without your own volition—no longer exists. The desire to return to it, the moment you know it no longer exists. I had been away long enough, and surrounded by Europeans thoroughly enough, to get these mixed up. European friends wondering, as they say, what I will make of it. Probably nothing at all. Wishing, they say, that they could be here, like a fly on the wall, to watch, when I get back. How can I explain that I do not want to go back in order to form opinions. That, unless I am very wrong, opinions will have nearly nothing to with the main thing of being back. Home is a place that does not exist, about which your opinions are irrelevant.
Aug. 27, 1956, 11 : 30 p.m., PAA Clipper Carib
It is nearly impossible, afterwards, to remember at what point I began to believe that I was really going. Believing comes elusively, not when you expect, most often, but both earlier and later, only gradually filling in the place where will be. Unpredictable, like a season changing.
It would come over me all at once that I was, say, sitting in that barber’s chair for the last time before I went. It would take the imagination by shock. The next minute I didn’t believe it at all. I was sure I’d go on and have the next haircut in that same chair, (with the barber who’d learned what I enjoyed was not having him talk to me, but having him carry on animated conversation with other customers, to which I could listen) and the one after that, and the one after that. When I got around to having haircuts at all. Somewhere else in the mind the imagination suddenly looks down the long vistas of time where one one will not lead.
And twenty-four hours before I was due to go, when everything was reminding me that it was happening for the last time—a rhythm that had gathered speed until it was unbroken—I would find myself going through the motions of the place’s most familiar habits, and not be able to believe.
I was sure I was going in a thin way like a hum in your ears, yesterday, as the desk gradually grew bare and everything in the study was either packed or put away. Not feeling anything about it but a certain emptiness independent of the emptying room; but sure. Feelings? I suppose they were there, after all, but like beasts patient as immigrants, to move in on the emptiness when their time came.
And sure yesterday as my key-case kept getting lighter, and the keys one by one were used for the last time and then packed in intelligent places where I will never be able to find them again, or left with D.
Then with all but a few things done, except things that could wait till the last minute, or things that would take too long anyway and must be abandoned, suddenly finding that everything was ready. And time all at once was heavy. Between the intense activity of getting ready, and the farewells and rush of getting off, time was heavy. More so not because I was anxious to go. I’d forgotten that, days before. A week ago. But because of all reasons I did not want to go; above all because I did not want to leave D. Wanted not to be going, but since I was going wanted to be gone. How different from most times when I’ve been going somewhere, thinking almost entirely of where I was going, savoring the whole trip, from the moment I was ready to go. Different entirely from when I left America, for I didn’t know how long, seven years ago. Even though a great part of me wanted to stay in America then, and even had an array of reasons. (Why go to Europe when I knew so little of America?) I imagine part of the .difference is this: that, apart from D., I know just how much, and in what ways I’m fond of Europe, but I didn’t know what I felt about America. I regretted leaving, before I had even gone, but I didn’t know what I’d really miss until I’d been away for some time. Foreign places, however familiar, defining your feeling about home. But stay away too long and you’re bound to confuse that with homesickness. (Which I never in my life felt, except in the mildest ways, until these last few years. Unprepared for it.)