(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the more remarkable poetic works to have been published in the West since T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Its genesis is interesting enough: James Merrill and his lover, David Jackson, had been experimenting with a Ouija board with little result when, one day in 1955, a spirit named Ephraim answered the ritual question: “Who’s there?” After a long time conversing with Ephraim, Merrill decided to take the notes he took from their “conversations” and turn them into a poem. The resulting work, “The Book of Ephraim,” contains a series of twenty-six poems, each beginning with a separate letter of the alphabet, one for each of the twenty-six capital letters on the board.

Merrill solves the difficult problem of separating the words of the “spirits” from his own by putting the former in capital letters; words of people other than himself are in italics. Each of the poems uses a slightly different poetic form, so the longer poem can be viewed as a book of forms. Narrative sections fall into blank verse, and didactic commentary tends to slip into heroic couplets. There are meditative sections that use stanza forms reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley or William Wordsworth, the great British romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and there is a section of 127 lines in terza rima, the length of a typical Dantean canto, that narrates a long discussion on life and art with his nephew.

The primary problem of the poem is that of what credence one should be expected to give to the garbled transmissions of a Ouija board. Merrill tackles the problem in various ways: He sees his psychiatrist, who calls the exercise a folie à deux, an attempt by him and his lover to communicate on some higher plane. He also expresses his own skepticism, pointing out that Ephraim knows no more about what he says than Merrill or Jackson does. Yet the tone of the poem in some way demands belief if it is not to break down into an elaborate folly.

“The Book of Ephraim” also contains large sections of a very murky novel concerning characters in the southwestern United States who are trying to settle on a remote piece of land. Ephraim at one time tells Merrill to forget it, but Ephraim is somehow in the novel himself, for the heroine of the book carries around a Ouija board. There are many other things in The Changing Light at Sandover, such as tributes to Merrill’s friends Auden, Maya Deren, and Maria Mitsotáki and to Merrill’s mother. There is a beautiful elegy for Venice, the dying city, and the discussion with his nephew on art. Ephraim himself is a springboard to many other things.

With book 2, Mirabell: Books of Number, all is quite different. The spirits “write” most of this book; moreover, they seem to demand belief much more than they did in...

(The entire section is 1174 words.)

The Changing Light at Sandover Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Changing Light at Sandover is an assemblage of three previously published books of poetry by James Merrill to which is added a new poem, “Coda: The Higher Keys.” The trilogy, as the first three books are commonly known, begins with the 1976 “The Book of Ephraim,” which was originally the second half of Merrill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poems, Divine Comedies. The next section of The Changing Light at Sandover is “Mirabell: A Book of Numbers.” For inclusion in The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill retitled his National Book Award-winning Mirabell: Books of Number. In 1980, Scripts for the Pageant, the third part of the trilogy, was separately published. In 1982, these three books plus “Coda: The Higher Keys” were collected for the one-volume book of poetry, The Changing Light at Sandover. Of the four parts, only “The Book of Ephraim” stands alone as a complete book of verse; the others are interconnected by characters and themes.

The Changing Light at Sandover, regularly labeled as an epic poem, covers such diverse topics as the writing of poetry, the threat of nuclear war, the destruction of the environment, death and reincarnation, and the role of the arts in a technological world. Merrill’s accomplishment in this book has led him to be compared with Dante Alighieri, William Butler Yeats, and Marcel Proust. As a poet, Merrill also represents the New Formalism movement in American poetry as he questions the balance between language and poetic form, as well as the effects of both on readers of poetry.

The trilogy begins with “The Book of Ephraim,” which comes to represent the first step in the process of discovering the answers to essential questions about the relationships between reason and imagination, truth and fiction, power and impotence, and time and wisdom. The story told in this book begins in 1955 with Merrill, who is labeled “JM” in the poems, and his friend, David Jackson, “DJ,” sitting down on a hot summer evening in Merrill’s Stonington, Connecticut, home to ask questions of a homemade Ouija board. They use a blue and white willowware china teacup to spell out the answers received from the spirit world. As they start, the answers are disjointed as many spirits pass by; then, Ephraim, the spirit of a Greek Jew, born in 8 c.e. who died in 39 c.e., becomes their clearest and principal conductor through the world they have conjured up. With Ephraim, JM and DJ are taught that the people now on earth house souls, called patrons in his world, who are promoted in a celestial hierarchy based on the deeds of their earthly hosts. As the conversations progress (Ephraim’s speeches shown in capital letters and unpunctuated lines), JM and DJ are able to speak with poets Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden, friends and relatives of both men, and people from Ephraim’s world. Ephraim also describes the organization of the universe.

“The Book of Ephraim” comprises twenty-six cantos, one for each letter of the alphabet, from “Admittedly” to “Zero Hour.” Merrill employs iambic pentameter, both rhymed and unrhymed, and he uses the meter to write cantos in couplets, quatrains, strophes, and sonnets. The language of the poem is clear and vivid. Nearly every line alludes to other literary works, opera, art, travel, or friends of JM. For example, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (first transcribed, fifteenth century), opera singer Kirsten Flagstad, composer Richard Wagner, and writers Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and Isak Dinesen have their places next to Merrill’s friends Hans Lodeizen, Maria Mitsotaki, and Maya Deren, among others. “The Book of Ephraim” is also marked by the poet’s use of irony, wit, bluntness, and a plot structure of searching and accepting what is found.

“The Book of Ephraim” provides the exposition of the tone, ideas, and major figures that create the limited unity of The Changing Light at Sandover. In the “A” poem, the poet describes his mission to write a poem that will reveal the unities of past and present. The “B” poem yields setting and background, and the “C” poem introduces Ephraim. In the “D” poem, twelve real and imaginary people are listed as the dramatis personae of “The Book of Ephraim.” In the “W” poem, JM converses with a fictional nephew, Wendell Pincus, about the poet’s ability to transcend his own self when writing to create a literary work that is universally significant. Finally, the “Z” poem describes a break-in at the Stonington house. Although nothing is taken, the family’s possessions are disturbed. The symbolism of intrusion of the unknown into their lives is captured here: “The threat remains, though of there still being/ A presence in our midst, unknown, unseen,/ Unscrupulous to take what he can get.”

Supplementing the visits from Ephraim are two other plots in this first part of the trilogy: Merrill’s incorporation of characters and partial story lines from his lost novel set in New Mexico and the poet’s indication of how this book was written. Letter sections J, N, S, T, and X recount parts of Merrill’s novel’s plot as he rewrites how Leo Cade, a Vietnam veteran suspected of murdering a Vietnamese thought by his company to be a spy, falls under the influence of Eros, a sensual spirit, and how Joanna, an older woman with unclear motives, aims to seduce Matt Prentiss, a character reminiscent of DJ’s father. Another character, Sergei Markovich,...

(The entire section is 2294 words.)