The Changing Light at Sandover is an assemblage of three previously published books of poetry by James Merrill to which is added a new poem, “Coda: The Higher Keys.” The trilogy, as the first three books are commonly known, begins with the 1976 “The Book of Ephraim,” which was originally the second half of Merrill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poems, Divine Comedies. The next section of The Changing Light at Sandover is “Mirabell: A Book of Numbers.” For inclusion in The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill retitled his National Book Award-winning Mirabell: Books of Number. In 1980, Scripts for the Pageant, the third part of the trilogy, was separately published. In 1982, these three books plus “Coda: The Higher Keys” were collected for the one-volume book of poetry, The Changing Light at Sandover. Of the four parts, only “The Book of Ephraim” stands alone as a complete book of verse; the others are interconnected by characters and themes.
The Changing Light at Sandover, regularly labeled as an epic poem, covers such diverse topics as the writing of poetry, the threat of nuclear war, the destruction of the environment, death and reincarnation, and the role of the arts in a technological world. Merrill’s accomplishment in this book has led him to be compared with Dante Alighieri, William Butler Yeats, and Marcel Proust. As a poet, Merrill also represents the New Formalism movement in American poetry as he questions the balance between language and poetic form, as well as the effects of both on readers of poetry.
The trilogy begins with “The Book of Ephraim,” which comes to represent the first step in the process of discovering the answers to essential questions about the relationships between reason and imagination, truth and fiction, power and impotence, and time and wisdom. The story told in this book begins in 1955 with Merrill, who is labeled “JM” in the poems, and his friend, David Jackson, “DJ,” sitting down on a hot summer evening in Merrill’s Stonington, Connecticut, home to ask questions of a homemade Ouija board. They use a blue and white willowware china teacup to spell out the answers received from the spirit world. As they start, the answers are disjointed as many spirits pass by; then, Ephraim, the spirit of a Greek Jew, born in 8 c.e. who died in 39 c.e., becomes their clearest and principal conductor through the world they have conjured up. With Ephraim, JM and DJ are taught that the people now on earth house souls, called patrons in his world, who are promoted in a celestial hierarchy based on the deeds of their earthly hosts. As the conversations progress (Ephraim’s speeches shown in capital letters and unpunctuated lines), JM and DJ are able to speak with poets Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden, friends and relatives of both men, and people from Ephraim’s world. Ephraim also describes the organization of the universe.
“The Book of Ephraim” comprises twenty-six cantos, one for each letter of the alphabet, from “Admittedly” to “Zero Hour.” Merrill employs iambic pentameter, both rhymed and unrhymed, and he uses the meter to write cantos in couplets, quatrains, strophes, and sonnets. The language of the poem is clear and vivid. Nearly every line alludes to other literary works, opera, art, travel, or friends of JM. For example, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (first transcribed, fifteenth century), opera singer Kirsten Flagstad, composer Richard Wagner, and writers Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and Isak Dinesen have their places next to Merrill’s friends Hans Lodeizen, Maria Mitsotaki, and Maya Deren, among others. “The Book of Ephraim” is also marked by the poet’s use of irony, wit, bluntness, and a plot structure of searching and accepting what is found.
“The Book of Ephraim” provides the exposition of the tone, ideas, and major figures that create the limited unity of The Changing Light at Sandover. In the “A” poem, the poet describes his mission to write a poem that will reveal the unities of past and present. The “B” poem yields setting and background, and the “C” poem introduces Ephraim. In the “D” poem, twelve real and imaginary people are listed as the dramatis personae of “The Book of Ephraim.” In the “W” poem, JM converses with a fictional nephew, Wendell Pincus, about the poet’s ability to transcend his own self when writing to create a literary work that is universally significant. Finally, the “Z” poem describes a break-in at the Stonington house. Although nothing is taken, the family’s possessions are disturbed. The symbolism of intrusion of the unknown into their lives is captured here: “The threat remains, though of there still being/ A presence in our midst, unknown, unseen,/ Unscrupulous to take what he can get.”
Supplementing the visits from Ephraim are two other plots in this first part of the trilogy: Merrill’s incorporation of characters and partial story lines from his lost novel set in New Mexico and the poet’s indication of how this book was written. Letter sections J, N, S, T, and X recount parts of Merrill’s novel’s plot as he rewrites how Leo Cade, a Vietnam veteran suspected of murdering a Vietnamese thought by his company to be a spy, falls under the influence of Eros, a sensual spirit, and how Joanna, an older woman with unclear motives, aims to seduce Matt Prentiss, a character reminiscent of DJ’s father. Another character, Sergei Markovich,...
(The entire section is 2294 words.)