James Merrill 1926-1995
(Full name James Ingram Merrill) American poet, novelist, dramatist, and memoirist.
Merrill is regarded as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Praised 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.” Distinguished for his work as a whole, Merrill is principally esteemed for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, which in the representative words of critic Robert Mazzocco is viewed as “an astonishing performance … as near to a masterpiece as anything else that American poetry has produced in the last two or three decades, and the capstone … of an extraordinary career.”
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. He published his first collection of poems, Jim's Book, in 1942, when he was sixteen. After serving in the military during World War II, he returned to graduate from Amherst and begin writing full time. In 1955, Merrill moved from New York to Connecticut, where he 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). He later collected these Ouija board poems, adding some original material, to produce The Changing Light at Sandover. 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 1950s, his relationships with his parents, and his homosexuality. Merrill died in 1995.
Merrill's earliest verse, collected in The Black Swan (1946), First Poems (1951), and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), was written in the formal style of seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, sometimes combined with a Romantic sensibility. In his collections Water Street (1962) and Nights and Days (1966), however, Merrill began to write of personal experiences and to combine lyrical verse with narrative. This expanding poetic sensibility is demonstrated in The Fire Screen, which gives voice to his deepest passions and imaginative speculations. Merrill's lengthy The Changing Light at Sandover is regarded as one of the most complex works of the latter half of the twentieth-century. Likened in scope to Ezra Pound's Cantos and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and in theme and form to Dante's Divine Comedy (especially the Inferno), Merrill's epic poem explores the direction of morality and science in the modern world and emphasizes the importance of developing spiritual strength. In order to experience spirituality in the modern age, Merrill suggests in the work, we must acknowledge the existence of powers outside conscious control and recognize the importance of science in revealing universal patterns and processes. Throughout the poem's sections Merrill traces the decline of cultures, reflects on pain, death, the loss of close friends and relatives, and discusses reincarnation. In The Book of Ephraim, whose twenty-six sections correspond to the letters of the alphabet, Merrill examines the uses and abuses of language, while in the ten sections of Mirabell: Books of Number, which correspond to the ten digits, he explores numerology, and in Scripts for the Pageant he divides his concern between the Ouija board's “yes” and “no” dichotomy. Merrill places his timeless, universal themes in a modern context, and though the poems are ultimately of a serious nature, they are full of humor based on puns and incongruities.
Most critics consider Merrill's earliest works to be meticulously crafted but occasionally lacking in emotional intensity, a flaw that, scholars agree, the poet addressed in his subsequent works. Representative of developments in his poetry of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Braving the Elements has been noted for the ways that its content and voice dictate the use of relatively free poetic forms, which critics suggest is the result of increased emotional honesty and willingness to reveal intimate feelings. Principal among Merrill's poetic work, The Changing Light at Sandover has been almost unanimously acclaimed for its evocative imagery, musical structure, narrative panache, and masterful variety of poetic styles including sonnets, ballads, villanelles, sestinas, terza rima, octava rima, and blank verse. Moreover, Merrill has been consistently recognized for the way he expands his personal quest for spiritual meaning into a poem of epic proportions confronting universal truths.