James Merrill was born in New York City, the son of Helen (Ingram) Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, one of the founders of the brokerage firm Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and (at one time) Beane. His parents divorced before his eleventh birthday, at which time he discovered a love for opera and music.
Merrill attended Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began to write, privately printing Jim’s Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories. After graduation, he entered Amherst College, but after a year there, he entered the U.S. Army, in which he served another year (1944-1945). He then returned to Amherst, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, had various poems published, and starred in a school production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (pr. 1926, pb. 1927). He wrote a senior thesis on Marcel Proust, the famous modernist French novelist, a writer who was always to have much influence on him. Merrill received his B.A. summa cum laude in 1948 and stayed on to teach a year at Amherst, then left to become a writer. He decided that Manhattan was not the proper atmosphere in which to write, so he first traveled throughout Europe, finally settling down in a house he purchased in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1954. In the mid-1960’s he bought another house in Athens, Greece. Throughout these years he shared both houses with his companion, David Jackson.
Merrill published his first book of poems, First Poems, in 1951. The book was well received and launched him on a lifelong career of writing. Before publishing another book of poems, he wrote two plays, The Immortal Husband (pr. 1955, pb. 1956) and The Bait (pr. 1953, pb. 1960), and a novel, The Seraglio (1957). The Bait was acted Off-Broadway in 1953. The Immortal Husband was presented at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village in February, 1955; reviewers found it well written but confusing.
Merrill’s novel The Seraglio received mixed reviews: It was considered to have style, humor, and shape but to be shallow in character and insubstantial in story. Although these attempts in forms other than poetry led to comparative failure, these works do illustrate Merrill’s skill in narrative and dramatic writing which would later inform some of his most ambitious attempts and better achievements; after these partial failures he temporarily swore off prose.
Very soon after, Merrill published his next book of verse, which was enthusiastically received; it was titled The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and Other Poems (1959). The country is Switzerland. Earlier Merrill had met a young Dutch writer, Hans Lodeizen, and had become close friends with him. Lodeizen became ill with leukemia, and Merrill visited him in the hospital in Switzerland. Lodeizen was very ill and soon died; the title poem of the volume is an elegy written for him.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Merrill, living both in Connecticut and Athens, published five more books of poetry and was often lauded as one of the top poets of the time. He published Water Street in 1962, Nights and Days in 1966, The Fire Screen in 1969, Braving the Elements in 1972, and The Yellow Pages: Fifty-nine Poems, made up of previously uncollected poems, in 1974. Nights and Days won the National Book Award for poetry in 1967. Although reviewers of his earlier poems praised his verbal and formal skills, they often criticized him for lacking serious subject matter. These were the days of the Vietnam War protests, it should be noted, and many a poet was criticized for lacking “relevance” to the events of the...
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day and the troubles of the times. Later in the 1970’s, the critics found that his poems took on more substance and that his “relevance” quotient was rising.
Merrill’s next book was quite a departure. Called Divine Comedies (1976), it contained six somewhat long poems and three short ones, followed by the “Book of Ephraim.” The latter purported to be an account of a conversation, through a Ouija board (and with the help of David Jackson), with a first century Greek slave named Ephraim, who worked on the staff of the emperor Tiberius and was later strangled to death while still young for attempting to make love to the young Caligula. The poem is an amazing tour de force, primarily because it immediately engages the reader’s interest and curiosity and because the poetic writing (both of “Ephraim” and Merrill) is so good. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Two sequels immediately followed “The Book of Ephraim”: Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), which won the National Book Award for Poetry, and Scripts for the Pageant (1980), which won the Bollingen Prize. The three poems were later combined with a “coda” and published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), a trilogy of poems based on Merrill’s and Jackson’s encounters with a Ouija board. It won the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award. Merrill then published more volumes of poetry, including From the First Nine: Poems, 1946-1976 (1982), Santorini: Stopping the Leak (1982), Souvenirs (1984), Bronze (1984), Late Settings (1985), The Inner Room (1988), and A Scattering of Salts (1995). Merrill died in 1995 one month shy of his sixty-ninth birthday.