“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.)