Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580

Perhaps now the poem’s full action can reveal itself as a process from confusion and anxiety toward enlightenment and acceptance of a human history in a natural world. Merrill begins his poem with “Light into the olive entered/ And was oil,” a wonderful image that in fact contains the poem’s action: The movement of light into the natural world (olive) produces the possibility of further light, as human beings process the light-generated olives into olive oil for cooking (human physical sustenance) and lamp oil to penetrate night’s darkness (human spiritual awareness).

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The glory that was Greece,” as every schoolchild knows, is but a remnant of a destroyed past. Socrates drank the hemlock; Athens fell to Sparta and then to Alexander and then to Rome and then to the Turks; the Parthenon’s miraculous beauty of proportioned structure was blown up three hundred years ago, and to see the temple’s great Elgin marbles, even in broken majesty, one needs to go to the British Museum. The reality of Greece’s glory is more memory than actuality. Modern humans are all “after Greece.” Yet so is the poet Merrill, who lives part of the year in Athens and part on Water Street in Stonington, Connecticut, founded not by ancient Greek aesthetic and philosophical genius, but by the dour hardihood of Merrill’s Calvinist American ancestors. Where, then, is home?

When he recalls the elegant little temple on the Acropolis next to the Parthenon’s ruin—the Erectheum—he suddenly dreams those caryatids (Aeschylus’s vengeful Furies from the Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English trans., 1777) transformed into the strong but gentle maidens symbolizing Athenian law) are to his dream mind his own American great-great-grandmothers, worrying in their nineteenth century bourgeois way about holding on to their property. Merrill explains to them (“How I distrust themthose ladies”) in his dream that the twentieth century horrors he has managed to live through—the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the Cold War—he has had his irons in the fire (a nice bit of American demotic: Having several irons in the fire signifies having several motives burning for action). However, his capitalized list is one of abstract ideals that deny each other (“Art, Public Spirit/ Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self/ Hatred of Self”). The move here from abstract public notions to that ambiguous personal self is significant. Now the poet realizes the inadequacy of such ideals and turns to “Essentials: salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream,” moving from external facts to an inward and psychological reality. In naming those “essentials” he has turned them, too, into abstract ideas that, like the Parthenon and the Erectheum’s caryatids, are subject to decay and destruction.

Now comes the epiphany and the poem’s conclusion. Earlier in his disorientation in Stonington he has wondered about those uninvited “guests, windy and brittle, who drink my liquor.” Now he wishes the “essentials” to be turned into “spirits” that can nurture his new awareness of how abstract and concrete, past and present, and personal and historical can produce (like the poem’s olive) light and enlightenment. Merrill’s very American pun on “spirits” (angels and booze) may, he wishes, allow him to survive the world’s tangled meanings, as well as his own. Merrill reveals in this poem a voice capable at once of profound philosophical investigation and a wholly unpretentious personal freshness and humor.

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