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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174

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The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the more remarkable poetic works to have been published in the West since T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Its genesis is interesting enough: James Merrill and his lover, David Jackson, had been experimenting with a Ouija board with little result when, one day in 1955, a spirit named Ephraim answered the ritual question: “Who’s there?” After a long time conversing with Ephraim, Merrill decided to take the notes he took from their “conversations” and turn them into a poem. The resulting work, “The Book of Ephraim,” contains a series of twenty-six poems, each beginning with a separate letter of the alphabet, one for each of the twenty-six capital letters on the board.

Merrill solves the difficult problem of separating the words of the “spirits” from his own by putting the former in capital letters; words of people other than himself are in italics. Each of the poems uses a slightly different poetic form, so the longer poem can be viewed as a book of forms. Narrative sections fall into blank verse, and didactic commentary tends to slip into heroic couplets. There are meditative sections that use stanza forms reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley or William Wordsworth, the great British romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and there is a section of 127 lines in terza rima, the length of a typical Dantean canto, that narrates a long discussion on life and art with his nephew.

The primary problem of the poem is that of what credence one should be expected to give to the garbled transmissions of a Ouija board. Merrill tackles the problem in various ways: He sees his psychiatrist, who calls the exercise a folie à deux, an attempt by him and his lover to communicate on some higher plane. He also expresses his own skepticism, pointing out that Ephraim knows no more about what he says than Merrill or Jackson does. Yet the tone of the poem in some way demands belief if it is not to break down into an elaborate folly.

“The Book of Ephraim” also contains large sections of a very murky novel concerning characters in the southwestern United States who are trying to settle on a remote piece of land. Ephraim at one time tells Merrill to forget it, but Ephraim is somehow in the novel himself, for the heroine of the book carries around a Ouija board. There are many other things in The Changing Light at Sandover, such as tributes to Merrill’s friends Auden, Maya Deren, and Maria Mitsotáki and to Merrill’s mother. There is a beautiful elegy for Venice, the dying city, and the discussion with his nephew on art. Ephraim himself is a springboard to many other things.

With book 2, Mirabell: Books of Number, all is quite different. The spirits “write” most of this book; moreover, they seem to demand belief much more than they did in “The Book of Ephraim.” One meets new spirits here—fourteen black batlike creatures who claim to be creatures of a past world; they also claim to be speaking “science” rather than merely reporting otherworldly gossip, as Ephraim did. Their “science,” however, turns out to be as metaphorical as the account of creation in the Bible, despite an elaborate numbering scheme which owes more to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek numerological philosopher, than it does to Einstein. In fact, their chief spokesman is first called 741. Later, he changes his bat form and becomes a peacock; Merrill then names him Mirabell, after the hero in The Way of the World (1700) by William Congreve, the witty seventeenth century British playwright. Mirabell elaborates a system of creation and salvation through what he calls “labwork” and “V” work, and describes the creation of soul substance out of materials from former humans, animals, and trees. He posits five super-souls who guide the world, being reincarnated in each generation, and hints at higher beings, including those in charge—called 00, god B (for biology), and in the end, a guardian of the sun, Michael.

The poem is divided into ten sections headed by the ten numerals on the Ouija board, 0 through 9. Sprinkled throughout are more delightful lyrics, odes, elegies, and didactic couplets. The book ends with a glorious and peremptory speech by the white angel of the sun, Michael, who apparently announces that Jackson and Merrill must stay even longer, for there is more work to be done.

The third section is called “Scripts for the Pageant”; it is the longest and most complex of the three sections, taking up exactly half of The Changing Light at Sandover. It is here that one learns, for the first time, what “Sandover” means: Merrill’s childhood home, after he moved out of it, was turned into a boarding school called Sandover, and the central dining room became a ballroom. While Jackson and Merrill operate the Ouija board at Stonington, the spirits gather, by means of an antique mirror, in the ballroom at Sandover, a “place of learning.” The result is the “pageant” that is part of the trilogy.

If the form of the first book was conversational and the second, catechetical, the third book is epic-dramatic. The speakers’ names are often lined up at the left margin as one would expect in a playbook, and the style has been raised. The book is organized, again according to the Ouija board, into ten “YES” sections, five “&” sections, and ten “NO” sections. The book, like the two others, is dotted here and there with set pieces, stanzaic blank verse, and terza rima—the latter, like the two sections in terza rima before it, ending with the word “stars,” a quiet but effective tribute to Dante. Then comes a piece called “Samos,” opening the “&” section, a beautiful double canzone in the medieval manner, celebrating the desire of poets everywhere to make the best of the material they are given.

In content, there is immense variety: The reader meets the four archangels who rule the four elements of Earth, from whose struggles comes the drama of human history. The reader then learns the names of the five super-souls: Akhnaton, Nefertiti, Homer, Montezuma, and Plato; then one discovers that Maria Mitsotáki was Plato reincarnate and that she will be reborn in India soon as a Hindu sage. One learns that god B has a twin sister, whom humans call Nature and whom readers meet at Sandover dressed like a Victorian belle. God B himself speaks, saying that his children (Michael and Gabriel) have shown the light and dark: Make a V work out of it, he says to Merrill.

The entire book ends with a coda: Auden and Maria will be released from their waiting room when Jackson and Merrill break the mirror; they do so, and the correspondents say goodbye to one another. There is one more scene, however; Merrill gathers at the ballroom at Sandover with all those who took part in the pageant. They await his reading of the book the reader has just finished.

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