James Merrill Essay - Critical Essays

James Merrill American Literature Analysis

Merrill’s work is considered difficult, but he did not write difficult poetry to forbid the reader access to his work; he was a poet with W. H. Auden’s sense: one who simply liked to have fun with words and was deeply sensitive to the multiple valences, the mercurial surfaces, that words present. Merrill’s early poetry was often labeled as being merely clever. Indeed, the early poems are among the small number of true modernist poems written in the United States along with those of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These poems are congeries of imagery surrounding a central intuition, often not clearly stated, creating a feeling where none existed before.

Unfortunately for Merrill, the age of the modernist poets was passing, and the critics lamented the lack of substance in his work. Indeed, many of his early poems (such as “The Mirror”) are symbols of the relationship between poetry and its subject. The reigning poetic fashion of the 1970’s was confessional poetry: trying to make some personal experience relevant for society. Perhaps this fashion inspired Merrill. He began writing longer poems, more influenced by the narrative technique he had shown in his early novel, The Seraglio, and they began to be about Merrill’s deeper life, rather than chance meetings and symbolist confrontations.

“Broken Home,” for example, is a reminiscence of his parents’ divorce and of his own frightening Oedipal encounter with his mother. In this period, certain images dominate. Fire imagery increases in importance; the house becomes a synecdoche for the identity of its occupants. Most of all, the mirror comes to the fore as an image of poetry, that reflection of reality that is supposed to tell readers something about themselves. The image appears everywhere in Merrill’s poetry—subtly, as a pond, a lake, skies, or even broken glass, or directly, as in the earlier poem “The Mirror.”

After Merrill set up his winter home in Athens, the landscapes of his poetry became more and more Greek and more mythological. The Greek house gets its own treatment, especially after a fire forced its thorough reconditioning. Merrill begins to combine his mythic sense with a perhaps even stronger animism, and one hears a black mesa and a stream bank speak in soliloquy. Intimations of immortality appear here and there in his poems, as long poems appear more frequently.

All of this seems like a preparation for The Changing Light at Sandover, certainly the most individual book of poetry published in the United States since Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). The technique of this book, of transcribing (actually, more or less editing) the messages of the Ouija board into poetry, allows Merrill the freedom to create a dramatic epic. The voices of the Ouija board bear witness to a world of the spirit to which Merrill the witness can act as either a skeptic or a believer, and a true dialogue can be set up between the voices of the board and the reflections and responses of the poet.

Dotted throughout The Changing Light at Sandover are set pieces showing some remarkable prosodic advances over his earlier poetry. He had always shown a skill at creating unique verse forms, often some combination of quatrains in tetrameter or pentameter, especially with his favorite rhyme scheme (abba), but with the long poem came some even more memorable set pieces. For example, there is the W section of “The Book of Ephraim,” written in a masterful terza rima, reinforcing its allusions to Dante, the medieval Italian epic poet. These allusions begin with the title of the book, Divine Comedies, in which “The Book of Ephraim” first appeared.

There is a section of pentameters with random rhymes reminiscent of the meditative poems of W. H. Auden, the brilliant modern British American writer. Scripts for the Pageant contains a modernist set piece called “House in Athens,” written in six-line stanzas of trochaic trimeter broken by a fourth line in pentameter, rhymed haphazardly, sometimes with consonance.

The same book also includes a poem, “Samos,” written in the form of a medieval canzone or sestina, with five twelve-line stanzas repeating the sounds of “sense,” “light,” “water,” “fire,” and “land,” arranged abaacaaddaee. The sounds change in each stanza so that a different sound ends the first line of each one.

On the surface, Merrill’s poetry is difficult, exploiting the modernist device of not specifying his nouns—his characters and places. His goal is to render, as exactly as possible, the movements of the human spirit in its encounter with reality, the world, or other people. In doing so, he acts as if the word as medium contains the realities it names. His work, as a result, has a profound civilizing function. Merrill also wants to know how he feels toward (and among) his own poetry, that wisdom of the imagination which gives value to life. He stands in a line of great writers, including Auden and Proust, who taught him how each sensation is a seed which, if properly nurtured, can turn into a work of art.

“The Broken Home”

First published: 1965 (collected in Collected Poems, James Merrill, 2001)

Type of work: Poem

Merrill reminisces about his old house and his parents’ divorce.

“The Broken Home” uses a unique form, a combination of seven different types of sonnet, to explore the meaning of family in the life of a child. The first sonnet is unrhymed and begins with the apparent genesis of the poem: He is going home one night and sees a family through the windows of the apartment above his. He goes to his own room and, trying to read a book of maxims, asks if his lonely life has any value.

The second sonnet, written in pentameters and rhyming abba cddc effe gg, talks about his father’s world. His father had two goals—sex and business—and a desire to “win.” “Time was money.” He married “every thirteen years,” but when he was seventy, he died: “Money was not time.”

The third sonnet is in a sort of free verse, rhymed abba cddc efg efg. It comments on what Merrill says was a popular “act” when he was a boy. A woman would accost a famous man and, after calling him names, would demand that he give women the vote; he would, in return, implicitly tell her to go back to homemaking. The last three lines of the sonnet turn it into an allegory of what Merrill feels is the eternal battle of the sexes between “Father Time and Mother Earth.” He begins to see his own parents’ divorce as part of a larger rift in the world between the male and female principles, a theme he will further develop in his famous trilogy.

The fourth sonnet is written in a sort of tetrameter, rhyming abba bccb dee bdb, and is the celebrated center of the poem. The young boy, led by his dog, enters the bedroom of his distraught mother; she is in bed, sleeping, “clad in taboos.” He wonders if she is dead; she jumps and reaches for him, and he runs from the room in terror. This Oedipal incident seems to color the whole poem. The fifth sonnet is again in free verse, rhyming abc db cdc eee fef; the rhyme scheme includes many slant rhymes. The poem centers on the conceit of a lead toy soldier. The parents decide to separate; he feels that they were full of passions but that everything is now cold and heavy.

The sixth sonnet, rhyming (or slant rhyming) abba cddc eff ghh, tells what he believes is the result of his parents’ divorce: He refuses to be like his father, active and competitive, or like his mother, nurturing, a gardener.

The last sonnet is the closest to the Petrarchan model, rhyming abab cdcd efg efg. The octave celebrates the whole event, telling of the little boy and his dog frozen back in time. The sestet points out that the house is now a boarding school; perhaps its inhabitants will learn more there than he did. The poem is not didactic or condemnatory; it merely delineates a history and relates it to today and to the world.

“18 West 11th Street”

First published: 1972 (collected in Braving the Elements, 1972)

Type of work: Poem

The poet treats an accidental bomb explosion by antiwar protesters as symbolic of humankind’s troubles.

“18 West 11th Street” seems to have been inspired by a newspaper report: Certain anti-Vietnam War protesters had a house blow up around them while they were trying to make bombs. The only survivor was a young woman named Cathy Wilkerson, seen running from the building naked and covered with blood.

The poem is one of Merrill’s most difficult—at least partially because it tries to tell three stories at once. The first is the story of the bombing: The five revolutionaries are fed up with society and its warmongering leaders. They have given up trying to use words to get their message across and are now resorting to bombs, a means of “incommunication.” Instead of bombing “The Establishment,” however,...

(The entire section is 3784 words.)