The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Broken Home” is a sequence of seven sonnets that are connected by imagery and themes, yet each is formally and narratively self-contained. The title refers to the poem’s autobiographical subjects—the divorce of James Merrill’s parents and his concern for the brokenness or incompleteness of his own childlessness.

The first sonnet begins with the poet outside, watching parents and a child framed by a window—a tableau he contrasts with his own “Sunless, cooler” room below. Thoughts of his childless (“Sunless”) existence as a poet for whom “The flame quickens” and “The word stirs” prompt him to ask his “tongue of fire” (either his muse or his homosexual lover) whether “you and I are as real/ At least as the people upstairs.”

The second sonnet focuses on the adult life of his father, Charles Merrill, founder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith. In the first two quatrains, Merrill discovers in his father the soul of a visionary “eclipsed” by a desire for business and sex that drove him to warm “up for a green bride” every thirteen years. “Too late now” the poet realizes that, as he did, his father could have “invested” in “cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.”

The third sonnet provides a historical backdrop for the particular breakdown of the marriage of the poet’s parents. Merrill describes a set scene from the 1920’s in which a veiled suffragette in “hobble skirt” attacks a famous man in a public place with insults: “War mongerer!...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Throughout “The Broken Home,” Merrill “confesses” through the “unstiflement” of his poetry his anxiety about his childlessness, his sadness over the rift in his family, and his discomfort over his strained relationships with his mother and father. Yet in the seventh sonnet, Merrill makes it clear that he is no “confessional” poet by carefully setting himself apart from those poets who, like Edgar in William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605), expose their nakedness and madness to the elements, “Who on the heath impersonate Poor Tom/ Or on the barricades risk life and limb.”

In “Broken Home,” Merrill masks the painful issues he probes through his favorite device of wordplay. For example, in the second sonnet, he develops witty puns associated with his father—“had flown in World War I,” “cloud banks,” and “chilled wives/ In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves”—to distract himself and the reader from the painful subject at hand (the philandering father’s abandonment of Merrill’s mother).

Merrill also uses puns and homophones to create multiple levels of meaning that operate simultaneously with the more obvious literal meaning often disguising more sensitive and volatile subjects. For example, he disguises his concerns for his own childlessness within his puns on his “Sunless, cooler” room in the first sonnet and “small gilt leaves” in the sixth sonnet (suggesting “guilt”...

(The entire section is 412 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.