James March Merrill Essay - Critical Essays

Merrill, James March


James Merrill March 3, 1926–February 6, 1995

(Full name James Ingram Merrill) American poet, novelist, dramatist, and memoirist.

For further information on Merrill's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 8, 13, 18, and 34.

Merrill is regarded as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Esteemed from the beginning of his fifty-year career for the formal and metrical precision of his work, he steadily developed his poetry's thematic depth so that, in such notable works as The Fire Screen (1969), Braving the Elements (1972), and The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), he was able to openly address autobiographical concerns, socio-political elements, and, in J. D. McClatchy's words, "the creation of an entire cosmogony." The son of Charles Merrill, co-founder of the New York stock brokerage firm now known as Merrill Lynch, Merrill was born into great wealth and consequently did not have to rely on his writing to earn a living. He decided early in life that poetry would be his vocation and pursued his study of literature at the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and at Amherst College. Jim's Book (1942), his first collection of poems, was published privately when he was sixteen. After serving in the military during World War II, he returned to graduate from Amherst and begin writing full time. Critics note that Merrill began his literary career during a revival of interest in metaphysical poetry, exemplified by the works of English poets John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Merrill's first works reflected this influence, and, as Paul Christensen noted, they represented the poet's "elegant persona, his widely cultivated tastes, his voice of leisured travel and gracious living—the poetry, in gist, of an American aristocrat." The majority of critics argue that while his work never lost its "mandarin" qualities, Merrill's poetic sensibility expanded—particularly in The Fire Screen and thereafter—to give voice to his deepest passions and most imaginative speculations. Braving the Elements, for example, is noted for the ways in which content and voice dictate the use of relatively free poetic forms, which critics suspect is the result of increased emotional honesty and willingness to reveal intimate feelings. The poems eventually collected in The Changing Light at Sandover evolved over a period of twenty-five years. In the 1950s Merrill and David Jackson, his friend, companion, and collaborator, began experimenting with a Ouija board, transcribing "messages" from dead relatives and friends, famous literary figures, and mythological beings. Merrill edited these messages, fashioning them into poetry and publishing them in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Divine Comedies (1976), the National Book Award-winning Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). The Changing Light at Sandover, which adds some original material to these Ouija board poems, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to two novels and several dramatic works, Merrill also wrote A Different Person (1993), a memoir in which he discusses his decisive trip to Europe in the early 1950s, his relationships with his parents, and his homosexuality. In 1972, Helen Vendler wrote in praise of Merrill's career that "readers actively wait for his books; to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry." Eulogizing his friend, McClatchy concluded: "What sustained Merrill was dedication to his calling, a high ambition, and a deeply moral purpose. If we give equal weight to each word, then this definition of a poet he once offered sums him up: 'a man choosing the words he lives by.'"

Principal Works

Jim's Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories (poetry and short stories) 1942
The Black Swan, and Other Poems (poetry) 1946
First Poems (poetry) 1951
The Bait (drama) 1953
Short Stories (poetry) 1954
A Birthday Cake for David (poetry) 1955
The Immortal Husband (drama) 1955
The Seraglio (novel) 1957
The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and Other Poems (poetry) 1959; revised edition, 1970
Selected Poems (poetry) 1961
Water Street (poetry) 1962
The Thousand and Second Night (poetry) 1963
The (Diblos) Notebook (novel) 1965
Violent Pastoral (poetry) 1965
Nights and Days (poetry) 1966
The Fire Screen (poetry) 1969
Braving the Elements (poetry) 1972
Two Poems: "From the Cupola" and "The Summer People" (poetry) 1972
Yannina (poetry) 1973
The Yellow Pages: 59 Poems (poetry) 1974
Divine Comedies (poetry) 1976
Metamorphosis of 741 (poetry) 1977
Mirabell: Books of Number (poetry) 1978
Ideas, etc. (poetry) 1980
Scripts for the Pageant (poetry) 1980
The Changing Light at Sandover (poetry) 1982
From the Cutting Room Floor (poetry) 1982
From the First Nine: Poems 1947–1976 (poetry) 1982
Marbled Paper (poetry) 1982
Peter (poetry) 1982
Santorini: Stopping the Leak (poetry) 1982
Bronze (poetry) 1984
Occasions and Inscriptions (poetry) 1984
Play of Light (poetry) 1984
Rendezvous (poetry) 1984
Souvenirs (poetry) 1984
Late Settings (poetry) 1985
The Image Maker (drama) 1986
Recitative (prose) 1986
The Inner Room (poetry) 1988
A Different Person: A Memoir (memoir) 1993
Selected Poems (poetry) 1993
A Scattering of Salts (poetry) 1995

∗This work contains "The Book of Ephraim" from Divine Comedies, all of the poems in both Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant, and an original epilogue, "Coda: The Higher Keys."

†This work was edited by J. D. McClatchy.

Obituaries And Tributes

Mel Gussow (obituary date 7 February 1995)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, February 7, 1995, p. B12.

[In the following obituary, Gussow describes Merrill as "heir to the lyrical legacy of W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens."]

James Merrill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose 14 books of verse established him as heir to the lyrical legacy of W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens, died yesterday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 68 and had homes in Stonington, Conn., and New York City.

He had been in Tucson on vacation and died of a heart attack at the Arizona Health Sciences Center, said J. D. McClatchy, a friend and fellow poet.

One of the most admired of American poets, Mr. Merrill was known for the elegance of his writing, his moral sensibility and his ability to transform moments of autobiography into deeply meaningful poetry. He once described his poetry as "chronicles of love and loss."

He won every major award, including the Pulitzer, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1966, he was named Connecticut's first poet laureate (his verse is filled with references to his home there and to other places he lived, including Key West, Fla., and Greece). His 15th volume of poetry, A Scattering of Salts, is scheduled to be published in March by Alfred A. Knopf.

He was also a novelist, playwright and essayist and in 1993 published a memoir of his early years, A Different Person.

When Mr. Merrill won the Bollingen Prize in 1973, he was praised for his "wit and delight in language, his exceptional craft, his ability to enter into personalities other than his own, and his sustained vitality." These are qualities that resonated throughout his long, productive career. In his work, he often mixed lyrical language with contemporary conversation. "His common style is a net of loose talk tightening to verse," wrote the critic Denis Donoghue, "a mode in which anything can be said with grace."

James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City in 1926. His father was Charles Merrill, a founder of the stock brokerage now known as Merrill, Lynch & Company. James Merrill, grew up in luxurious surroundings, and because of family wealth never had to depend on his writing to make a living. He had been, he said in his memoir, rich since he was 5 "whether I liked it or not," and added that he was "as American as lemon chiffon pie." Nothing deterred him from his desire to be a poet.

At the age of 11, he discovered opera, a first love before literature and a guiding force in his poetry. He went to Lawrenceville School, where one of his close friends and classmates was the novelist Frederick Buechner. Mr. Buechner later said that their friendly competition was an impetus for each becoming a writer. At Lawrenceville, the young poet privately published a book of poetry and stories.

Mr. Merrill's studies at Amherst College were interrupted by a year of service in the infantry in World War II. He returned to Amherst in 1945, published poems in Poetry and The Kenyon Review, and wrote a thesis on Marcel Proust, who remained an inspiration in his writing.

After graduating from Amherst summa cum laude, he formally began his career, and his writing remained unabated for the next 48 years. His first book, First Poems (1951), received mixed reviews. Perhaps in response to that reaction, he switched briefly to fiction and play-writing: his first play, The Immortal Husband, was done off Broadway in 1955 and his first novel, The Seraglio, was published in 1957.

His return to poetry came in 1959 with The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and he then made his breakthrough in 1963 with Water Street. Reviewing that collection in The New York Times Book Review, X. J. Kennedy said that Mr. Merrill had become "one of the American poets most worth reading."

In 1967, Mr. Merrill won his first National Book Award, for Nights and Days. That book was followed by The Fire Screen (1969) and Braving the Elements (1972).

In her review of Braving the Elements in The New York Times Book Review, Helen Vendler said that "in the last 10 years, with his last four books of poems," Mr. Merrill "has become one of our indispensable poets." He won the Bollingen Prize in 1973.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976), and his second National Book Award for Mirabell: Books of Number (1978). In a review in The New Republic, Charles Molesworth compared Scripts for the Pageant (1980) to "Yeats and Blake, if not Milton and Dante." Within these three books was a long connected poem, inspired by Mr. Merrill's sessions at a Ouija board with his companion, David Jackson. The trilogy was republished in 1982, with a new epilogue, as The Changing Light at Sandover.

When he was 24, Mr. Merrill undertook what became a two-and-a-half-year journey of discovery in Europe. In A Different Person, he reflected on that trip, on his family life, his relationship with his parents and his homosexuality.

Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Brigitte Weeks said it was "a beguiling and deceptively simple memoir." Referring to the author at 67 and his younger incarnation, she said that "both make exhilarating and charming traveling companions."

When his father died, Mr. Merrill used money from his inheritance to establish the Ingram Merrill Foundation to give grants to writers and painters.

He is survived by his mother, Hellen Plummer of Atlanta, and by a half-sister, a half-brother and a stepsister.

J. D. McClatchy (essay date 27 March 1995)

SOURCE: "Braving the Elements," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 5, March 27, 1995, pp. 49-52, 59-61.

[An American poet, critic, and educator, McClatchy was a close friend of Merrill's. In the following reminiscence, he discusses Merrill's development as a poet, surveying his life and works through personal insights and anecdotes.]

The news that James Merrill had died last month in Arizona at the age of sixty-eight, of a sudden heart attack, caused a palpable shock in the literary world. Spontaneous tributes and readings sprang up all around the country. Disbelieving letters and phone calls crisscrossed the circle of professional writers. Not since a starry chapter closed in the nineteen-seventies with the deaths of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop has the loss of an American poet been as momentous, or as widely acknowledged to be so.

That is in part because, however compelling Merrill's ambitions or demanding his methods, his readers always felt a sort of intimacy with him. For fifty years, the poet had used the details of his own life to shape a portrait that in turn mirrored back to us an image of our world and our moment. When his sixth book of poems, Braving the Elements, appeared, in 1972, Helen Vendler's review in the Times [see The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1972] struck early what has since come to be the dominant note in appraisals of Merrill: "The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively long [Vendler used the word "wait"] for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry."

For Merrill's funeral service, in Stonington, Connecticut, on a raw February afternoon, the little village church—its whitewashed interior suddenly looking rather Greek—was filled. A piping soprano sang "Bist du bei mir" to the plaintive accompaniment of a virginal, and Merrill's good friend the novelist Allan Gurganus delivered a brief eulogy. "Some people contain their grace," he said. "James dispersed his. It was a molecular nimbus he lived within, and he seemed, after nearly seven decades in there, largely unaware of its effervescent impact on the rest of us." Later, at the cemetery, where a mossy oblong of sod lay beside a tiny grave, friend after friend sprinkled a handful of dirt over the poet's ashes. One young poet, when it was his turn, also dropped into the grave a dime-store marble painted to resemble the globe.

For Merrill's friends, the shock has slowly subsided into the dull realization that there will be no more of his witty company. Yes, he was a great poet and knew he was meant to end up as books on a shelf. Those books—the last one, A Scattering of Salts, is, as it happens, to be published this week—have long since confirmed his mastery: he knew more about the language of poetry than anyone else since Auden and used it to make poems that will remain part of anyone's definition of the art. But so, too, his conversation. He liked, as he once said, "English in its billiard-table sense—words that have been set spinning against their own gravity." At a large dinner party or on a casual stroll with an old acquaintance or a perfect stranger, he had an uncanny, almost anarchic habit of turning everything upside down. By his slight adjustment of perspective or realignment of a syllable, the dire became droll. He rarely relaxed his instinctive habit of reversing a truth or upending the mawkish, and his face loved to anticipate—with its pursed smile and arched brow—the pleasure his remark was about to give.

Last season, for instance, at a Met performance of "Otello," the Desdemona was in trouble long before her tragic end. Carol Vaness became ill during the opera and decided to withdraw. Her Russian cover, hastily done up in such a way as to make her quite a different woman from Vaness, took over the last act. After the performance, Merrill, ambling up the aisle, turned to a friend and shook his head with a rueful giddiness: "Poor Desdemona! She changed the color of her hair, but it didn't save her marriage."

The crack is characteristic in more ways than one. To begin with, he was at the opera, and nothing over the years had given him more pleasure or, at the start, had taught him more. He began going to the Met when he was eleven, and one of his best-known poems, "Matinees," describes its effect: "The point thereafter was to arrange for one's / Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals, / Chiefly in order to make song of them." Opera—its ecstasies and deceptions, its transcendent fires and icy grandeurs—is, above all, a stylized dramatization of our inner lives, our forbidden desires and repressed fears. It may seem surprising in a poet like Merrill, whose surfaces can be so elegant and elusive, but center stage in his work is passion. However his words may work to heighten and refine it, the urgency of the heart's desires is his constant subject.

That Merrill would joke not about Desdemona's murder but about her failed marriage also points to a distant event that had come to shape his imagination. At about the time he starting going to the opera, his parents separated. A bitter divorce trial followed, and, because Merrill's father was one of the most powerful financiers in America—a cofounder of the great brokerage house of Merrill, Lynch—the story was national news. One tabloid even ran a photograph of young James with the caption "PAWN IN PARENTS' FIGHT." Again and again in the course of his career, Merrill revisited the scene, and nowhere more memorably than in his sequence of sonnets called "The Broken Home." Thirty years after the fact, the poem manages a knowing shrug: "Always that same old story—/ Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks." But the poem's impulse here to mythologize the trauma is part of a larger scheme. It is as if the divorce represented Merrill's own split personality. As much his father's son as his mother's boy, he had a temperament that by turns revealed what we may as well call paternal and maternal sides. He was drawn equally to the rational and the fanciful, the passionate and the ironic, America and Europe. And, from the very beginning, his ambition as a poet was—like the child attempting to reconcile his warring parents—to harmonize those two sides of his life. More often than not, he preferred to remain of two minds about all matters. And the energy spent exploring these divisions and doublings, all the obsessions and inventions of his work, from the delicacies of metaphor on to the creation of an entire cosmogony, fuelled a career as remarkable as any in American literary history.

As children, most of us fantasize a glamorous alternative: our parents are royal and rich, we live in a palace, we are adored and powerful. But if those happen to be the facts of your life instead of your fantasies? Merrill's parents had a brownstone on West Eleventh Street and a stately Stanford White pile in Southampton—The Orchard—with a dozen bedrooms, with conservatories and rose arbors, cooks and chauffeurs. In his 1957 roman à clef, The Seraglio, Merrill portrays his father in his later years as a sort of pasha, surrounded by wife, ex-wives, mistresses, nurses, and flatterers—a man who loved his wives deeply but cheerlessly while counting on other women for companionship and fun. He was a man whose face "would have made the fortune of any actor. Frank, earnest, noble in repose, it was kept from plain tiresome fineness by being always on the verge of some unlikely humor, mischief or doltishness or greed." Merrill's mother, Hellen Ingram, was Charles Merrill's second wife, a Jacksonville beauty who had once been a newspaper reporter, and she kept close tabs on her son. It's almost natural that Merrill's childhood fantasies weren't the usual ones. If his ballad "Days of 1935" is a fair account of them, he imagined himself kidnapped, like the Lindbergh baby, and carried off to some shabby hideout by a gangster and his moll, with whose cheap looks—her rosebud chewing gum, his sallow, lantern-jawed menace—he falls in love, and from whose violent ways he longs not to be ransomed.

In a 1982 Paris Review interview, he said, "It strikes me now maybe that during much of my childhood I found it difficult to believe in the way my parents lived. They seemed so utterly taken up with engagements, obligations, ceremonies—every child must feel that, to some extent, about the grown-ups in his life." In fact, like most childhoods, his was lonely. He craved affection, and spent most of his time with a beloved governess, reading up on the Norse myths or devising plots to present in his marionette theatre. The loneliness—perhaps a necessary condition for any poet's working life—and a need to charm run right through his work. By the time he was eight, he was writing poems. By the time he was at Lawrenceville, he meant to make a career of it and told his father so. Charles Merrill had a volume of the boy's early poems and stories—called Jim's Book—privately printed, to the young author's immediate delight and future chagrin. Later, distressed by his son's determination, Charles nonetheless took a businessman's approach. He secretly sent his son's fledgling work to several "experts," including the president of Amherst, and asked for their frank opinion. When they all agreed on a precocious talent, the patriarch was overheard to say proudly that he would rather have a poet for a son than a third-rate polo player.

Recently, Merrill had begun to notice in his shaving mirror each morning how much he had come to resemble his father: "a face no longer / sought in dreams but worn as my own" is how one poem puts it. He had never thought to look for that face earlier, since the young need always to consider themselves unique. In his memoir A Different Person, published two years ago, he remembers looking at himself in 1950:

From the mirror stares inquiringly a slim person neither tall nor short, in a made-to-order suit of sandy covert cloth and a bowtie. My bespectacled face is so young and unstretched that only by concentration do the lips close over two glinting chipmunk teeth. My hair, dark with fair highlights, is close-cropped. I have brown eyes, an unexceptionable nose, a good jaw. My brow wrinkles when I am sad or worried, as now.

Not that what I see dismays me. Until recently I've been an overweight, untidy adolescent; now my image in the glass is the best I can hope for. Something, however, tells me that time will do little to improve it. The outward bloom of youth upon my features will fade long before the budlike spirit behind them opens—if ever it does. It is inside that I need to change. To this end I hope very diffidently to get away from the kind of poetry I've been writing.

The kind of poetry he was writing then—his First Poems appeared in 1951—was very much of its time. The aloof, lapidary glamour of the poems, their dissolves and emblems were meant both to disguise feelings only dimly known and to declare his allegiance to a line of poets that could be traced from Wallace Stevens back to the French Symbolists. But before long he had written a novel and had a couple of plays produced Off Broadway, and from both experiences he had learned to write a more fluent and inflected line, often coaxed by narrative.

In 1954, Merrill decided to abandon New York City. He moved, with his companion, David Jackson, to Stonington, a small coastal village—half fishing fleet, half Yankee clapboard—that a friend had suggested might remind him of a Mediterranean port. He and Jackson bought a house; they had a brass bed, a record player, a rowboat, a table and two chairs to work on, and no telephone. He loved the light glinting on Long Island Sound, and the cozy, settled routines of village life; the town, he said, was "full of clever wrinkled semi-famous people whom by the end of our second season we couldn't live without." In 1959, he and Jackson made another move—to Athens. They soon bought a house there, too, and for the next two decades spent half of each year in Greece.

Both moves were, in a sense, strategic withdrawals. Like his friend Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill did what he could to avoid having to lead a Literary Life. Stonington's bright calm began to give his work a more domestic focus. In the collection named for his address, Water Street (1962), there is a poem that speaks of his "dull need to make some kind of house/Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." Always aware that the word "stanza" is Italian for "room," Merrill put together poems that would shelter his memories. Increasingly, his poems were autobiographical, reaching back to his childhood or puzzling over some passing event or involvement. He eventually described his poems as "chronicles of love and loss," and that term aptly stresses his sense of a life lived and understood over time, and links his two recurrent themes. From Merrill's college days on, his favorite writer had been Proust, for whom the only true paradise was a lost paradise. For both writers, love is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, becomes art.

If the familiarities of Stonington afforded both distance and security, Greece gave him something else. Here was a landscape of ravishing ruggedness, a culture of exotic simplicities. Better still, a language—he quickly mastered it—in which his accent wouldn't at once betray his class. He loved the anonymity it gave him; he loved the very sound of it: "kaló-kakó, cockatoo-raucous / Coastline of white printless coves / Already strewn with offbeat echolalia."

The poems set in Greece, vivid with local color, are the highlight of his two subsequent books—Nights and Days (1966) and The Fire Screen (1969). Landscapes as different as New Mexico, Rome, and Key West would later figure in his work as well. Merrill was a poet who looked out at a scene or around a room for prompting. "I always find when I don't like a poem I'm writing, I don't look any more into the human components," he told an interviewer. "I look more to the setting—a room, the objects in it." What was in front of his eyes would reveal what was in his mind. It was a quality he especially admired in the...

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Reviews Of Merrill's Recent Works

David Lehman (review date 12 September 1993)

SOURCE: "Another Past Recaptured," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 12, 1993, p. 4.

[Lehman is an American critic, poet, and educator whose works include James Merrill: Essays in Criticism (1983), for which he served as editor and a contributor, and Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991). In the following review of A Different Person: A Memoir, he lauds Merrill's prose style and his insights into love and passion.]

Elegant, graceful, puckish, lithe, James Merrill has steadily put his sonnets and intricate stanzas at the service of...

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