Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

One expects great truths from an epic poem. The reader expects to be told about the meaning of the world and to be instructed on how to live within it. The Changing Light at Sandover is a very contemporary poem in its refusal to provide fully these sorts of truths. The world conveyed through the Ouija board is a work of fantasy and imagination, not one that is intended to be an imitation of what reality is or an admonition as to what it should be. Merrill is adamant in his claim that the Ouija sessions occurred as in the poem. He insists that the spirit world, not himself, was responsible for the portions of the poem in capital letters, and that he only served as an editor who molded them into a suitable poetic shape. Even so, the reader is not compelled to accept the veracity of the poem’s narrative but to enjoy it as a work of art.

The way the poem combines spirituality and imagination can be seen in miniature in the character of Ephraim. In the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold made a famous distinction between the “Hellenic” and the “Hebraic”: The Hellenic sensibility is filled with the beauty and grace found in Greek sculpture; the Hebraic sensibility possesses the zeal and faith found in the Bible. Ephraim, a Greek Jew, combines these sensibilities; the values he represents are both transcendent and sensuous. The fact that Ephraim is murdered at about the time of the death of Jesus hints that Merrill is proffering his vision as a...

(The entire section is 512 words.)