The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This short, unrhymed exercise in free verse has the intimacy of a bit of private conversation about it. The poet, seated at his desk at a moment of creative frustration, his poem “thus far clotted, unconnected,” notices a tiny angel hovering above his desk. Whether this is a figment of his imagination or a real spiritual intrusion is never made clear, and there are aspects of the description that possess intimations of the natural and the artistic worlds about them. The “whirring” sound leads directly to an association with the hummingbird, and its robes remind one of the colorful plumage of the tiny bird—robes which are described in terms of art, since Jan van Eyck is a fifteenth century Flemish painter whose work was bright and highly colored. There is, however, another association which may come to mind, getting its strength from the pointing finger; it may remind some readers of those small hanging mobiles, usually made of thin metal, painted gold, in which a figure, often an angel, cut out in profile and with arms outstretched, swings around in a circle, responding to air currents.

The tiny figure is pointing out the window with one hand. It is winter, and seemingly a particularly cold day, as evidenced by the smoke from the houses showing sharply in the crystal air and the haste with which people hurry by. The window seems to be in a house by the sea, since the speaker can see the sun’s cold rays bouncing on the waves. With the other...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lurking behind this slender, witty lyric is a form that is usually developed into something rather more substantial, but which James Merrill has managed to keep small in this work. It is, in a sense, a “dramatic monologue” in the tradition of Robert Browning, but also reminiscent of the short, problem poems of John Donne. It starts in medias res, clearly in the middle of a situation which has developed to a point at which the poem begins. This gives the poem a kind of dramatic immediacy, a feeling of having inadvertently broken into a conversation which has been going on for some time. The reader is not sure of what has gone before, but the poem itself provides sufficient clues to the fact that somehow the speaker, who is a writer, has reached some kind of impediment, and his work is not going well. The angel provides him with the excuse for giving up, with the seemingly unassailable argument that the writer is striving beyond himself, presumptuous in assuming that he can make art; indeed, the argument is made more convincing by the admission by the writer that however much he desires to play the Satie composition, he cannot master it. The formidable counters of creative success used to discourage him are a sophisticated mix of the divine, the natural, and the artistic. God creates all, including the world, even in winter an object of awe. He also creates the angel, who is splendidly dressed in colors that connect him to the angels in the world of art, in the paintings of van Eyck. The angel sets the beauty and power of the spiritual, the natural, and the world of human artistic creation in the works of van...

(The entire section is 663 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.