From the First Nine

When he was about eight, James Merrill opened a random book and read that the husband of a character named Alice was “in the library, sampling the port.” From the perspective of nearly half a century later, he writes: “If samples were little squares of wallpaper or chintz, and ports were where ships dropped anchor, this hardly clarified the behavior of Alice’s husband.” Long after his governess had resolved the ambiguity of this particular phrase, Merrill recalls, the episode continued to haunt him: “Words weren’t what they seemed. The mother tongue could inspire both fascination and distrust.”

Learning thus that “the everyday sounds of English could mislead you by having more than one meaning,” Merrill became acquainted with the volatile instability of the world. Things were not simple, set, and sure. The experience of the boy whose sense of language’s fixity was swept from under his feet by this tiny epiphany became the dominant thrust of the poetry of the man, as change—of perspective or of actuality—holds sway.

Mutability was a major concern of Renaissance poets—“The Mutability Cantos” of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) are among his best-known works—as was appropriate for a time when the extremely stable medieval world was rapidly being displaced by the widening horizons and multitude of new facts of the modern world. The changes Merrill writes about, however, are not so earthshaking. Until his recent trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover (collected into one volume at the same time as his selection of poems from his first nine books was brought out by his longtime publishers, Atheneum), Merrill’s concerns were on the human rather than the global scale. He dealt with the kinds of change that every human from the dawn of time has had to confront: loss of loved ones through death, loss of youth and vigor, loss of love, loss of dreams and innocence and ideals. Such themes constitute Merrill’s persistent concerns, often giving his poetry a sense of melancholy and bittersweet. This is, however, no fin de siècle sadness, for a pronounced sense of humor also invigorates much of his work.

A master craftsman, Merrill knows very well how to convey the ceaseless change that is his recurring subject. One cannot do so in the casual free verse so prevalent today. Rather, there must be something to deviate from; hence, Merrill’s reliance upon form. Just as his subjects are rooted to those of the Renaissance masters, so in fact are many of his forms, from sestina to sonnet—forms which he manipulates with endless ingenuity. His sonnets would rarely be recognized as such by a casual reader of this volume. They may often be in lines shorter than the usual iambic pentameter (though Merrill is certainly no slouch with this meter, varying the sounds and rhythms of such lines with the subtlety and skill of John Milton or John Donne); enjambed lines are far more common than end-stopped ones; rhymes and rhyme schemes are seldom obvious.

“The Broken Home,” which appeared previously in Nights and Days (1966), is actually a sonnet sequence, though not labeled as such. The seven fourteen-line sections are set off from one another by spacing, and each has its own focus and rhyme scheme, making a complete poem by itself, always reaching a strong conclusion with a rhymed couplet or a striking line or two in a closing tercet or sestet. Here, the juxtaposition of what are essentially individual poems to create a single longer poem (a method Merrill uses in many other poems in From the First Nine) conveys a clear and touching picture of the poet’s relations with his parents.

The second sonnet of this sequence focuses on Merrill’s father. The meter and the rhyme scheme are as regular as the most rigid poetaster could wish (if one accepts the use of consonance in two of the words in each quatrain), yet the poem steers clear of the singsong quality that modern users of traditional forms must consciously avoid. Merrill accomplishes this by prosaic, conversational diction (“time was money in those days”); by the use of consonance (and who would ever look at the page and see that I and win were meant to...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)


Antioch Review. XLI, Spring, 1983, p. 244.

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Winter, 1983, p. 731.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 13, 1983, p. 8.

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.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIX, Autumn, 1983, p. 135.

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