The Poem

“Domino” consists of three sestets, each following a strict rhyme scheme (abcacb). The title of the poem presents not only the ostensible subject of the poem—Domino sugar—but also hints at other esoteric levels of meaning. In addition to representing a trade name, the title can be read as domino—the dative possessive case of the Latin dominus, meaning “lord, master,” or “clergyman”—or as the name of the black game pieces marked with white dots. With this rich title, James Merrill signals the economic and theological concerns that he will explore in the poem.

On a more transparent level, the poem begins with the sugar speaking smugly of its privileged role at the table of the elite. Assuming the cool, haughty tone of its epicurean consumer, the sugar boasts that its “Delicious, white” grains are “refined” into “crystal rudiments” of a perfection that keeps them “From wholly melting in the tea.”

Despite the sugar’s aloofness, in the second sestet the poet reminds the reader that sugarcane is grown in a distant world in which suffering prevails: “Often a child’s lament/ Filled the infested hut.” The plantation owner’s guilty return to check on her neglected workers (“Doña Pilar flew back for Lent/—Had she been inhumane?”) does not soften the poem’s harsh contrast between the worlds of the first and second stanzas.

In the third stanza, the sugar’s wry voice returns to express its disdain for “History’s health freak,” who “appraises” society’s “mess” or mealtime habits and “begs/ That such as we be given up.” “The drainer of the cup,” the sugar archly predicts, will “miss those sparkling dregs” when he is left with only the “Outpouring bitterness” of unsweetened tea.

This simple surface treatment of Domino sugar, however, masks Merrill’s subtle treatment of at least three other subjects in “Domino”: a Marxist challenge to the exploitation of workers, a presentation of the sacraments of the church (specifically, the Eucharist and penance), and a theological dispute over the renunciation of everything associated with the body.

Forms and Devices

In “Domino,” Merrill creates a tight network of multiple levels of meaning, making at least three distinct readings of the poem possible beyond the poem’s dialogue between the elite consumer of Domino sugar and the suffering workers who produce it. Merrill achieves this complexity by packing the texture of his lines with puns based on homophones, the recovery of root meanings, and obsolete versions of words. Merrill creates multiple meanings, each of which sustains one of the levels on which the poem can be read.

After introducing his complex title, the poet injects a pun in the poem’s first line, based on the variant meanings of “refined”: “reduced to a pure state” (as the sugar is), “purified or free from moral imperfection” (the result of penance), and “freed from what is coarse” but also “reduced in vigor and intensity” (both applicable to the privileged class). In the first stanza, the poet also uses “raised” to mean “cultivated” (in the case of the sugar cane), “bred” (for the privileged class), and “leavened” or “resurrected” (referring to the Eucharist wafer and the Body of Christ). Also in the first stanza, Merrill creates a pun on “word” and uses “stirred” to suggest not only the mixing of the sugar crystals in the tea but also an agitation of emotions (to which the detached privileged class remains unreceptive).

Merrill’s most complex use of a pun occurs in the second sestet,...

(The entire section is 487 words.)


Adams, Don. James Merrill’s Poetic Quest. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Berger, Charles, ed. James Merrill: Essays in Criticism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Poetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Hammer, Langdon. “Merrill and Stevens.” Wallace Stevens Journal: A Publication of the Wallace Stevens Society 28 (Fall, 2004): 295-302.

Lurie, Alison. Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. New York: Viking, 2001.

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Moffett, Judith. James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Polito, Robert. A Reader’s Guide to “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Rotella, Guy, ed. Critical Essays on James Merrill. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.

Vendler, Helen. “Ardor and Artifice: The Mozartian Touch of a Master Poet.” New Yorker 77 (March 12, 2001): 100-104.

White, Heather. “An Interview with James Merrill.” Ploughshares 21 (Winter, 1995/1996): 190-195.

Yenser, Stephen. The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.