The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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.

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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 hand, the angel is pointing at the piano inside the room, upon which lies a copy of Erik Satie’s Sarabande No. 1, a work that the speaker has never been able to learn to play well.

The angel’s mouth is open, and the speaker imagines that he is poised either to speak or sing. The angel does not do either, but the writer thinks that if the angel were speaking, he would be chiding the writer for wasting his time trying to write when the obvious artistic successes of God and Satie are at hand to be admired. Defensively, the speaker thinks that it was wise of the angel not to have said anything of the kind, since there are arguments that could be made to suggest that neither God nor Satie created perfect works of art. In his chagrin, he also wonders at the presumption of the angel in admiring Satie. What is an angel doing admiring the works of an ordinary man? The angel has said nothing, but the speaker imagines his attitude toward the poem he is trying to write and is determined to show that he is not affected by the angel’s presence. He gets back to the work of attempting to clean up the poem and give it some kind of artistic form. The angel, seemingly unimpressed by this show of busyness, unsmilingly shakes its head, making it clear that it does not approve even of the poem as it is printed.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

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 Eyck and Satie against the seeming failure of the speaker’s text, thus far turgid and aimless compared with the angel’s examples, “whole/ Radiant and willed.”

As is the way of the “dramatic monologue,” the problem is seemingly impossible of solution, but in the very act of contemplating its difficulties the character in trouble not only faces the difficulties, but learns to understand and confront them, and ultimately to move back into action. In this poem the writer asks himself why he should bother, given the example of past greatness, both spiritual and human. How can he hope to compete? Asking the question helps him to see that creative art is not all done, that both God and Satie have limitations in their respective creations. The poem is a process of understanding, of movement from modest despair through serious confrontation with the problem of choosing between being a cowed consumer of others’ creative gifts and deciding to try once more, even in the face of the seeming disdain of the spiritual world. In the end, the writer gets his confidence back and is determined to try again, partly to annoy, if genially, the angel, who clearly thinks the writer incapable of reaching his goal, and partly to reestablish his place as a creator.

Much of the success of this poem depends upon its “smartness,” its sophistication, which is not an uncommon element in Merrill’s work. He is a writer whose work commonly shows up in the first instance in the pages of The New Yorker magazine, which has a reputation for appealing to educated, intelligent, worldly-wise readers. Merrill has wider and deeper ambitions than simply pleasing the intelligentsia, but this poem has a strong aura of cleverness, albeit tenderly expressed. It could be read without recognizing its “dramatic monologue” form, but it is much more effective, intellectually and aesthetically, when that is seen. Certainly the choice of Satie and van Eyck suggests a kind of fastidious aestheticism. Ludwig van Beethoven and Rembrandt van Rijn would have been too obvious, and one suspects too important, too powerful, to conform to Merrill’s idea of himself as a second-line artist such as van Eyck and Satie: tasteful, circumscribed and not inclined to grand gestures.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184

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.

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