The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440

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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 salute to a new spiritual recognition that his divided homes, like his own divided nature, can come together in a stable, permanent identity within his existential personality as a poet.

Merrill acknowledges several mentors in his works; here, most obviously, his mentors are Marcel Proust and Dante. Like Proust’s, Merrill’s voice in this poem wanders through memory and desire, dream and waking, to achieve resolution in the poet’s transformation of life’s contingencies into the beauty of literature. Another poem near this one in Water Street, “For Proust,” presents Proust doing precisely that. Like Dante in the opening of his Divina Commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), that pilgrimage through Inferno and Purgatorio to Paradiso, Merrill finds himself at thirty-five “midway this life of ours,” as Dante says, wondering, “But where is home—these walls?/ These limbs?” He sees his likeness in “the very spaniel underfoot [who]/ Races in sleep, toward what?” As Thoreau said, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” Merrill’s confusion about “home” is a confusion about where lies what is most real for him. The poem’s fifty-five lines strive to provide an answer—however short of paradise—that will suffice for a human being in the twentieth century.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

Merrill’s entire uvre is an encyclopedia of strictly formal stanzaic forms and intricate rhyme schemes (sonnets, villanelles, ballads), but in “After Greece” he displays a mastery of blank verse. It is very irregular blank verse, varying in line length from four to twelve syllables, from two to seven stresses, dancing around the regular iambic pentameter of ten syllables and five stresses. Many lines wrench the regular pattern by piling up two or three stressed syllables in a row. This use of spondaic and pyrrhic rather than iambic feet creates a highly energized if not downright panicky voice, revealing the anxiety of the speaker’s concerns: the rage and sorrow over conflicts of past and present, concrete and abstract modes of perception, and feeling and thought, which threaten the stability of personal identity in the midst of historical awareness of destruction and death.

Along with the extreme irregularity of the verse, one becomes aware of a shifting of perception through flamboyant leaps of Merrill’s voice from the objective, intellectual, and abstract (“Art, Public Spirit/ Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self/ Hatred of Self. . . .”) to the subjective, sensual, and concrete (“salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream—”). Merrill moves from external objects to personal, psychological reality. Indeed, his voice slips from external awareness of “real” objects (“The rest/ Lay spilled, their fluted drums half sunk in cyclamen/ Or deep in water’s biting clarity”) to inward dream (“I some days flee in dream. . . .”).

To add to the surrealist confusion of his stream of consciousness, one comes to see that sensory experience, whether in direct and personal awareness or in dream and memory, may, when one attempts to verbalize it, merge abstract and concrete, thought and feeling. The fraught question then arises: What happens to animal instinctive sensual experience when, in human consciousness, linguistic manipulation intervenes? Can people know what they think—or feel—without language? Does language ineluctably distort humans’ “original” animal instinctive experience? Can the poet in his verse merge and unify the concrete and abstract, the animal and the human, in an authentic spiritual vision of reality?


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184

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