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.)