The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

James Merrill’s “After Greece” is a surrealist narrative meditation upon reality or authentic being. It addresses the human means to apprehend that reality, both as mortal individuals mired in the narrative development of personal consciousness and as persons aware of a cultural and historical matrix in which they participate. The title of the volume in which this poem appears is Water Street, the address in Stonington, Connecticut, where Merrill settled when not at his other home in Athens, Greece. The action of “After Greece” examines his awareness of interesting changes as he returns from his Athens flat to his American house on Water Street, a return from ancient to contemporary, from a foreign to his own country.

In the first fifteen lines, set in Greece, the poet reflects upon the country’s ruined glory, both as glory and as ruin. Having sailed for “home”—in America—he feels disoriented and depressed at this failing season of the year (autumn), having to entertain uninvited guests, and finds his mood, like his liquor bottles, filled with spleen. His dream confuses Athens and Water Street, Greek sculptures with his great-great-grandmothers, and abstract ideals with simple concrete essentials. Clearly, his unconscious is hard at dreamwork to seek resolution. Then his depression lifts: “Stay then. Perhaps the system/ Calls for spirits.” The system must be some cosmic order that includes himself. He lifts his glass in...

(The entire section is 440 words.)