Obituaries And Tributes
Mel Gussow (obituary date 7 February 1995)
SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, February 7, 1995, p. B12.
[In the following obituary, Gussow describes Merrill as "heir to the lyrical legacy of W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens."]
James Merrill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose 14 books of verse established him as heir to the lyrical legacy of W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens, died yesterday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 68 and had homes in Stonington, Conn., and New York City.
He had been in Tucson on vacation and died of a heart attack at the Arizona Health Sciences Center, said J. D. McClatchy, a friend and fellow poet.
One of the most admired of American poets, Mr. Merrill was known for the elegance of his writing, his moral sensibility and his ability to transform moments of autobiography into deeply meaningful poetry. He once described his poetry as "chronicles of love and loss."
He won every major award, including the Pulitzer, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1966, he was named Connecticut's first poet laureate (his verse is filled with references to his home there and to other places he lived, including Key West, Fla., and Greece). His 15th volume of poetry, A Scattering of Salts, is scheduled to be published in March by Alfred A. Knopf.
He was also a novelist, playwright and essayist and in 1993 published a memoir of his early years, A Different Person.
When Mr. Merrill won the Bollingen Prize in 1973, he was praised for his "wit and delight in language, his exceptional craft, his ability to enter into personalities other than his own, and his sustained vitality." These are qualities that resonated throughout his long, productive career. In his work, he often mixed lyrical language with contemporary conversation. "His common style is a net of loose talk tightening to verse," wrote the critic Denis Donoghue, "a mode in which anything can be said with grace."
James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City in 1926. His father was Charles Merrill, a founder of the stock brokerage now known as Merrill, Lynch & Company. James Merrill, grew up in luxurious surroundings, and because of family wealth never had to depend on his writing to make a living. He had been, he said in his memoir, rich since he was 5 "whether I liked it or not," and added that he was "as American as lemon chiffon pie." Nothing deterred him from his desire to be a poet.
At the age of 11, he discovered opera, a first love before literature and a guiding force in his poetry. He went to Lawrenceville School, where one of his close friends and classmates was the novelist Frederick Buechner. Mr. Buechner later said that their friendly competition was an impetus for each becoming a writer. At Lawrenceville, the young poet privately published a book of poetry and stories.
Mr. Merrill's studies at Amherst College were interrupted by a year of service in the infantry in World War II. He returned to Amherst in 1945, published poems in Poetry and The Kenyon Review, and wrote a thesis on Marcel Proust, who remained an inspiration in his writing.
After graduating from Amherst summa cum laude, he formally began his career, and his writing remained unabated for the next 48 years. His first book, First Poems (1951), received mixed reviews. Perhaps in response to that reaction, he switched briefly to fiction and play-writing: his first play, The Immortal Husband, was done off Broadway in 1955 and his first novel, The Seraglio, was published in 1957.
His return to poetry came in 1959 with The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and he then made his breakthrough in 1963 with Water Street. Reviewing that collection in The New York Times Book Review, X. J. Kennedy said that Mr. Merrill had become "one of the American poets most worth reading."
In 1967, Mr. Merrill won his first National Book Award, for Nights and Days. That book was followed by The Fire Screen (1969) and Braving the...
(The entire section is 8,492 words.)