My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father’s hand the last time

he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don’t want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

Analysis, meaning and summary of W.S. Merwin's poem Yesterday


  1. Sheila Dory says:

    I was moved on hearing W.S. Merwin reciting this poem on the radio this morning and later found it on your website. It is truly a beautiful and heartfelt expression of how one feels after losing a parent. I so appreciate the comments of Danny Hocken in clarifying the stanza 4, which at first glance was not clear to me.

  2. Danny Hocken says:

    (I always feel inadequate to comment on great poems like this! Ah, now I’m experiencing de ja vu.)

    The only aspect of this poem I don’t understand, and therefore will write about that: is the title. I want to write about why it’s called ‘Yesterday’.

    The speaker of the poem tries in a brief, courageous moment to interrupt his friend ‘I say the last time I saw my father’ in stanza 4. But soon he is back to just saying ‘oh I say’ in stanza 6.

    I interpret that the speaker, although not capable of speaking of his father, has lost his father. He says ‘feeling again the cold/of my fathers hand the last time’ stanza 6.

    The death of his father and I suppose the sadness and guilt he experiences as he listens to the story by his friend who ‘is older than I am’. Here, the speaker is even more distant because he just looks ‘out the window’.

    So all this time, the speaker is thinking of Yesterday, the day he lost his father. I suppose that’s why his friend is talking to him about his father and maybe wants to learn something about relationships from the speaker, like how to talk to his father, but the speaker has nothing to say, or if he does, he’s too sad to say it. This lack of communication from the speaker to the friend symbolizes or is a metaphor for the lack of communication between the speaker or the friend and their fathers.

  3. alexandria says:

    you know this poem is related to my life now i usually see my father

  4. ilene novick says:

    is there anyone who has lost a parent who wouldn’t understand this poem’s meaning? it goes beyond the parent/child relationship and probably applies to relationships in general especially the familial…if we give 99% to a relationship, we feel guilty about the 1% we saved for ourselves…even if we were given another chance our actions would not be different…it speaks of a universal emotion…guilt is inherent in man’s nature…simply said, it’s “inherited”…i’ve always doubted those who never “owned” this emotion…

  5. Victoria W Kline says:

    While reading the poem you don’t have to guess what the writer is trying to say. I do think that the writer could have wrote it in a different form.

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