James March Merrill Critical Essays

Introduction

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 mythological beings. Merrill edited these messages, fashioning them into poetry and publishing them in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Divine Comedies (1976), the National Book Award-winning Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). The Changing Light at Sandover, which adds some original material to these Ouija board poems, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to two novels and several dramatic works, Merrill also wrote A Different Person (1993), a memoir in which he discusses his decisive trip to Europe in the early 1950s, his relationships with his parents, and his homosexuality. In 1972, Helen Vendler wrote in praise of Merrill's career that "readers actively wait for his books; to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry." Eulogizing his friend, McClatchy concluded: "What sustained Merrill was dedication to his calling, a high ambition, and a deeply moral purpose. If we give equal weight to each word, then this definition of a poet he once offered sums him up: 'a man choosing the words he lives by.'"