James March Merrill

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Merrill March 3, 1926–February 6, 1995

(Full name James Ingram Merrill) American poet, novelist, dramatist, and memoirist.

For further information on Merrill's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 6, 8, 13, 18, and 34.

Merrill is regarded as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Esteemed from the beginning of his fifty-year career for the formal and metrical precision of his work, he steadily developed his poetry's thematic depth so that, in such notable works as The Fire Screen (1969), Braving the Elements (1972), and The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), he was able to openly address autobiographical concerns, socio-political elements, and, in J. D. McClatchy's words, "the creation of an entire cosmogony." The son of Charles Merrill, co-founder of the New York stock brokerage firm now known as Merrill Lynch, Merrill was born into great wealth and consequently did not have to rely on his writing to earn a living. He decided early in life that poetry would be his vocation and pursued his study of literature at the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and at Amherst College. Jim's Book (1942), his first collection of poems, was published privately when he was sixteen. After serving in the military during World War II, he returned to graduate from Amherst and begin writing full time. Critics note that Merrill began his literary career during a revival of interest in metaphysical poetry, exemplified by the works of English poets John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Merrill's first works reflected this influence, and, as Paul Christensen noted, they represented the poet's "elegant persona, his widely cultivated tastes, his voice of leisured travel and gracious living—the poetry, in gist, of an American aristocrat." The majority of critics argue that while his work never lost its "mandarin" qualities, Merrill's poetic sensibility expanded—particularly in The Fire Screen and thereafter—to give voice to his deepest passions and most imaginative speculations. Braving the Elements, for example, is noted for the ways in which content and voice dictate the use of relatively free poetic forms, which critics suspect is the result of increased emotional honesty and willingness to reveal intimate feelings. The poems eventually collected in The Changing Light at Sandover evolved over a period of twenty-five years. In the 1950s Merrill and David Jackson, his friend, companion, and collaborator, began experimenting with a Ouija board, transcribing "messages" from dead relatives and friends, famous literary figures, and...

(The entire section is 602 words.)