Study Guide

Losing the Marbles

by James Merrill

Losing the Marbles Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Losing the Marbles” is a seven-part poem meditating on the various aspects of old age, especially as they relate to poetry. Section 1 is written in the manner of a romantic meditation, indicating the impetus for the poem. The poet has lost his date-calendar and cannot remember what he is supposed to do that day—nor can he remember what he and his friends discussed at lunch. He comments: “another marble gone.” Then he remembers; they were describing what each one’s “Heaven” would be. His was to be an acrobat in old Greece when the Parthenon was a living building. The coming of dusk brings to mind a line of the famous twentieth century Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He puns, saying that evenings were graces allowing a man to tumble gracefully “into thyme,/ Out of time.”

Section 2 is in the style of a metaphysical ode. Complicated metaphors fill it—a storm like a silver car, a rivulet of ink in which the poet must dip, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by means of the Golden Treasury. It is an ironic comment on the inability of poetry to stem the storm of old age. Section 3 at first is a puzzle: It is a series of disconnected phrases arranged helter-skelter on the page. It seems to be describing a passionate sexual encounter at first, then it modulates into a lament not only for the body’s ineptitude but also for the good memories that present failures obscure.

Section 4 is in rhymed couplets. It begins...

(The entire section is 616 words.)

Losing the Marbles Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Adams, Don. James Merrill’s Poetic Quest. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Berger, Charles, ed. James Merrill: Essays in Criticism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Poetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Hammer, Langdon. “Merrill and Stevens.” Wallace Stevens Journal: A Publication of the Wallace Stevens Society 28 (Fall, 2004): 295-302.

Lurie, Alison. Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. New York: Viking, 2001.

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Moffett, Judith. James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Polito, Robert. A Reader’s Guide to “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Rotella, Guy, ed. Critical Essays on James Merrill. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Vendler, Helen. “Ardor and Artifice: The Mozartian Touch of a Master Poet.” New Yorker 77 (March 12, 2001): 100-104.

White, Heather. “An Interview with James Merrill.” Ploughshares 21 (Winter, 1995/1996): 190-195.

Yenser, Stephen. The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.