The Changing Light at Sandover

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

It all started back in the summer of 1955.

Poet James Merrill (whose only significant publication to date had been First Poems in 1951) and his lover David Jackson gathered at a ouija board and began consulting the spirit world. David (called here DJ) served as “Hand,” his fingers operating the willowware cup that under the guidance of the spirits pointed to the symbols on the board, while James (called JM) served as scribe, taking down these letters and numbers and eventually transforming them into poetry to fill the bulk of more than five hundred pages.

What is spelled out on the board is essentially a new metaphysics, including the past, present, and future of a world now confronted by overpopulation, pollution, and nuclear threats. Through communication with the spirits—from mortals now dead (both friends and the famous) through nonhuman beings who flourished on Earth before Homo sapiens through God’s angels to God Himself (here aptly dubbed God B for Biology, suggesting the teeming life that is the greatest distinction of Earth)—JM and DJ learn about the transference of souls, the failures of God B’s past experiments, and the danger to the souls of mankind through nuclear power and radiation.

The product of these communications—which transpire over nearly a quarter of a century, chiefly in JM and DJ’s house in Stonington, Connecticut, and in a house outside Athens called Sandover—is a vast epic poem, originally published separately as “The Book of Ephraim” in Divine Comedies (1976), Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). Now gathered under one cover, the trilogy is unchanged from the original publications except for the addition of a coda, “The Higher Keys,” which unfortunately represents a severe comedown after the superb climactic action that closes Scripts for the Pageant.

Very much in the tradition of Dante (frequently alluded to here) and John Milton, Merrill’s epic seeks to justify (or at least explain) the ways of God to men. Unlike those immortal forebears, however, Merrill lacks an audience that shares a single religious worldview. Indeed, as one of their major spirit-world contacts, Mirabell, notes about the spirits’ increasingly unheard message: “MAN IS AMOK & CHAOS SLIPS IN (UPON/ COLLAPSE, IN INTELLIGENT MEN, OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF).” (Merrill consistently uses uppercase letters to indicate communications transmitted through the capital letters of the ouija board.) In the lack of such a prevailing faith, Merrill through this poem must create one, or at least record it as received from the spirits, for unlike Milton, Merrill needs to invite no “Heavenly Muse” to “sing”; rather, supernatural forces seek him out and invoke his aid in conveying their “message of survival.”

Why? Because he and DJ are deemed worthy through their love, as well as by Merrill’s talent, even though so recently launched upon the world—Merrill still in his twenties, Jackson a bit older, when they begin these communications. Some years later, in fact, there is a delightful moment for JM when Mirabell’s choice of words and images indicates that he has read First Poems.

Eventually Merrill and Jackson discover that they have been chosen over a heterosexual couple because “SO CALLD NORMAL LOVERS” must reproduce, while “MIND IN ITS PURE FORM IS A NONSEXUAL PASSION/ OR A UNISEXUAL ONE PRODUCING ONLY LIGHT.” To be sure, their relationship is not all “pure mind,” for they enjoy some bawdy interplay with two other homosexual poets, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, who had also been lovers, and their twenty-fifth year together is initiated by an exquisite ceremony of the spirit world, accompanied by the music of Richard Strauss as James and David kiss.

The poem traces their relationship, through separations and reunions, through difficulties with aging and dying parents, and through their own aging processes. As they learn about themselves and grow emotionally, they also proceed into knowledge of the nonhuman world, for the movement of the poem is ever deeper, into longer books, into the further past, and into ever more profound revelations about humankind, the world, and God, and particularly their mission: JM’s duty to write the poem disseminating these revelations. As a poet, Merrill has a further responsibility,...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)

The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The Changing Light at Sandover is an epic poem in three books along with a supplemental coda. The title refers to the house owned by the poet in Stonington, Connecticut, where much of the action (both internal and external) of the poem takes place. More generally, the title expresses the central preoccupation of the poem: its interest in the possibilities available in the occult and the spirit world. The fact that the light changes rather than remains constant hints that this world sometimes appears genuine yet seems sometimes a contrivance of the human imagination.

The first book of the poem “The Book of Ephraim,” begins with the poet, James Merrill, in his dining room at Sandover. He, along with his friend David Jackson, is at the Ouija board, looking for otherworldly communication. They manage to make contact with a spirit named Ephraim, who in his earthly existence was a Greek Jew of the first century a.d., murdered by the Roman emperor Tiberius about the time of Jesus. Ephraim gives them information about the organization of the afterlife, pictured as a complicated set of layers of consciousness. Ephraim also liberally dispenses scandal and gossip about various historical personages. Ephraim’s messages are written down by Jackson and then are used as the base for the excerpts that are presented in the poem. Further sessions with Ephraim are interspersed frequently with an account of the daily lives of Merrill and Jackson. The reader is made familiar with a circle of friends of the two men, dead friends as well as living ones. Several of these friends will appear as characters in the poem’s messages from the spirit world, including the experimental film director Maya Deren, the voice and presence of the distinguished poet W. H. Auden (a major influence on Merrill), and friends—Maria Mitsotaki, Hans Lodeizen, and Robert Morse—whose main renown is through this poem itself. This overlap between Merrill’s mundane life and the world of his Ouija-channeled visions is characteristic of this portion of the poem. In “The Book of Ephraim,” messages from the spirit world do not make up the majority of the book. Those messages that do occur are interwoven subtly with sensitive and amusing observations about the life and art of this world. The presence of the Ouija messages lends an aura of the uncanny and the mysterious to even the daily elements of Merrill’s narrative. One has a sense that something is about to happen, that there are mysterious forces lurking in the present that make one uneasy about whether what one has known about the world will suffice. This mystery will become more explicit in the remainder of the trilogy.

Merrill and Jackson journey to New Mexico, Greece, and Venice as the years pass, and their contacts with Ephraim continue. The poet begins to write a novel about his experiences with Ephraim but finds himself blocked by what Merrill believes are the overly broad evocations required by the novel form. Merrill begins to envision revealing Ephraim and his spirit world in a work much like the poem now being read. A momentary intrusion during one of the...

(The entire section is 1288 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

The Changing Light at Sandover is an epic not because it follows the formal techniques of works such as Homer’s Iliad (c.800 b.c.), but because, in the manner of earlier long poems in English such as William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850) or Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” its ambition and its imaginative reach are of epic dimensions. Its vast range of characters, its Dantesque revelation of the afterlife and the heavens, and the sheer degree of personal, historical, and artistic information it includes give it a prodigious dimension that is equaled strikingly by its poetic achievement.

Unusually for a poem of its epic nature, though, the greatest...

(The entire section is 685 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Commonweal. CX, November 4, 1983, p. 585.

Harper’s. CCLXVII, September, 1983, p. 69.

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Winter, 1983, p. 724.

Labrie, Ross. James Merrill. Boston: Twayne, 1982. The first full-length reference book on Merrill. As part of Twayne’s U.S. Authors Series, it provides an overview of Merrill’s life and analysis of the poetry published before 1982.

Lehman, David, and Charles Berger, eds. James Merrill: Essays in Criticism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. This collection of eleven essays ranges from analysis of unifying elements in Merrill’s poetry to a memoir of the Ouija experiences by David Jackson. Two-thirds of the essays are on The Changing Light at Sandover.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 30, 1983, p. 12.

McClatchy, J. D. “The Art of Poetry XXXI.” The Paris Review 24 (Summer, 1982): 184-219. Poets Merrill and J. D. McClatchy discuss the genesis of the Ouija board’s messages and their transformation into Merrill’s verse. This frequently cited interview also features a photograph of the homemade board and sample transcripts from 1976.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, June 16, 1983, p. 41.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 13, 1983, p. 6.

Newsweek. CI, February 28, 1983, p. 70.

Shetley, Vernon. After the Death of Poetry: Poetry and Audience in Contemporary America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Chapter 3, “Public and Private in James Merrill’s Work,” includes a useful discussion of The Changing Light at Sandover, especially regarding the interpretation of “The Book of Ephraim.”

Yale Review. LXXIII, Autumn, 1983, p. R9.