“Swimming by Night” begins, not surprisingly, in the middle of things: “A light going out in the forehead/ Of the house by the ocean” signals to the reader that the poet is already in deep water. James Merrill is presumably swimming in the ocean off the coast of an island in Greece, where he spent nearly two decades living half of each year. He wrote a prose version of this poem in The (Diblos) Notebook (1965), in which Sandy, the protagonist in a novel—which Sandy is writing himself, in one of those nice double gestures that Merrill adores—explains that “What one can use is the poetry of the night, the lights running across black water toward us from the mainland.” Because the swimmer is “Without clothes, without caution,” the poem and the poet are deeply committed to some kind of self-discovery.
There is a double darkness of ocean and of night, a “warm black” in which the poet and the reader are plunged. With “Wait!” in the second line of the second stanza, the poem and the poet draw attention to the contrast of surface and depth, both in ocean and in understanding. The poet seems to say he is going to take this slowly, by degrees—“Where before/ Had been floating nothing, is a gradual body”—and that body is the poet’s own, as well as his craft.
It is important to know that Merrill enjoyed considerable freedom from certain real pressures of life. His father was an immensely wealthy...
(The entire section is 470 words.)