Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A central theme of “The Broken Home,” as the title suggests, is the disintegration of a marriage. As he observes the “gold leaf” tableau of the ideal unbroken family in the first lines of the poem, Merrill is led to attempt to discover reasons for the breakup of his parents’ marriage. In each of the next four sonnets, he explores potential explanations for his broken home: his father’s being too absorbed in “sex/ And business,” the conflict between the roles of men and women, the ghastliness of a mother-turned-corpse, his parents’ indulgence in the aristocratic frenzy of the 1920’s. By the end of the fifth sonnet, however, Merrill has no explanation, no certainties, and is forced to bury without judgment both mother and father and their once-glowing hearts “Cool here in the graveyard of good and evil.”

A perhaps less obvious although no less important theme in “Broken Home” is childlessness. Just as the opening family tableau reminds Merrill of his parents’ divorce, so it also contrasts with his childless life of art and homosexuality in the “room on the floor below.” As he did with his parents’ failed marriage, Merrill attempts to find explanations for his own choices in the sonnets that follow: a lack of connection with his father; his oedipal relationship with his mother; something in him growing “heavy, silver, pliable” as he observes his parents’ deteriorating relationship; his reaction against his parents’...

(The entire section is 422 words.)