James Merrill Merrill, James - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Jim's Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories (poetry and short stories) 1942

The Black Swan, and Other Poems 1946

First Poems 1951

Short Stories 1954

A Birthday Cake for David 1955

The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and Other Poems 1959

Selected Poems 1961

Water Street 1962

The Thousand and Second Night 1963

Violent Pastoral 1965

Nights and Days 1966

The Fire Screen 1969

Braving the Elements 1972

Two Poems: “From the Cupola” and “The Summer People” 1972

Yannina 1973

The Yellow Pages: 59 Poems 1974

Divine Comedies 1976

Metamorphosis of 741 1977

Mirabell: Books of Number 1978

Ideas, etc. 1980

Scripts for the Pageant 1980

* The Changing Light at Sandover 1982

From the Cutting Room Floor 1982

From the First Nine: Poems 1947-1976 1982

Marbled Paper 1982

Peter 1982

Santorini: Stopping the Leak 1982

Bronze 1984

Occasions and Inscriptions 1984

Play of Light 1984

Rendezvous 1984

Souvenirs 1984

Late Settings 1985

The Inner Room 1988

Selected Poems 1993

A Scattering of Salts 1995

The Bait (drama) 1953

The Immortal Husband (drama) 1955

The Seraglio (novel) 1957

The (Diblos) Notebook (novel) 1965

The Image Marker (drama) 1986

Recitative [edited by J. D. McClatchy] (prose) 1986

A Different Person: A Memoir 1993

*This work contains “The Book of Ephraim” from Divine Comedies, all of the poems in both Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant, and an original epilogue, “Coda: The Higher Keys.”

David Kalstone (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Transparent Things,” in Modern Critical Views: James Merrill, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 57-67.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1977, Kalstone considers the verse of The Fire Screen, Braving the Elements, and Divine Comedies.]

It would be interesting to know at what point Merrill saw a larger pattern emerging in his work—the point at which conscious shaping caught up with what unplanned or unconscious experience had thrown his way. In retrospect a reader can see that Braving the Elements (1972) gathers behind it the titles—with full metaphorical force—of Merrill's previous books. In The Country of a Thousand years of Peace, Water Street, Nights and Days and The Fire Screen, he had referred to the four elements braved in the book which followed them. (Divine Comedies extends it one realm further.) The books do present experience under different aspects, almost as under different zodiacal signs. And The Fire Screen is, among other things—and preeminently—the book of love. It reads like a sonnet sequence following the curve of a love affair to its close. Like important sonnet sequences, the implied narrative calls into play a range of anxieties not strictly connected to love, in Merrill's case challenging some of the balanced views of Nights and Days.

“The Friend of the Fourth Decade” is the launching point for this book—the poet at forty, setting one part of himself in dialogue with another. What is being tested here is the whole commitment to memory, to personal history, to a house and settling down—the very material to which Merrill entrusted himself after Water Street. The “friend” is an alter ego who comes to visit—really to confront—his poet-host, after a long absence. In the opening scene, against the settled atmosphere of his host's house, the friend is shot through with the setting sun so that he appears to be “Any man with ears aglow, / … gazing inward, mute.” The temptation the friend represents is crystallized in a dream at the close of the poem. “Behind a door marked danger … ”

Swaddlings of his whole civilization,
Prayers, accounts, long priceless scroll,
Whip, hawk, prow, queen, down to some last
Lost comedy, all that fine writing
Rigid with rains and suns,
Are being gingerly unwound.
There. Now the mirror. Feel the patient's heart
Pounding—oh please, this once—
Till nothing moves but to a drum.
See his eyes darkening in bewilderment—
No, in joy—and his lips part
To greet the perfect stranger.

The friend has taught him a mesmerizing game in which saved-up postcards, a whole history of personal attachments, are soaked while the ink dissolves. The views remain, but the messages disappear, “rinsed of the word.” When the poet tries it himself, watching his mother's “Dearest Son” unfurl in the water, the message remains legible. “The memories it stirred did not elude me.”

“The Friend of the Fourth Decade” tests a dream of escape, a drama extended and detailed by the poems set in Greece which follow it in The Fire Screen. In some sense the book is like Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel, a deepening encounter with another language and a more elemental culture, in which the speaker becomes, from poem to poem, more identified with his new world, cleansed of the assumptions of the old. In “To My Greek,” the Greek language, encountered as if it were a demon lover, or a siren, becomes a radiant, concrete release from the subtleties of the “mother tongue” and the burden of “Latin's rusted treasure.” A newcomer to Greek, he is forced to be simple, even silly. With Merrill the experience is characteristically amplified. He treats it as a temptation to become “rinsed of the word” and to humble himself speechless in the presence of “the perfect stranger.” Both the transcendental and the self-destructive overtones of that phrase from “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” where the “perfect stranger” is also Death, haunt this book.

The initiation into Greece is inseparable from the exhilaration and the mystery of a love affair. It was anticipated in “Days of 1964,” the wonderful Cavafid conclusion to Nights and Days, and is allowed to run its course in The Fire Screen. In “The Envoys” Merrill finds a series of emblems for the sense of adventure and risk experienced in the lover's presence. In three narrative panels, he introduces creatures the lover momentarily traps and tames, binds and then frees: a scurrying lizard, a frightened kitten and a beetle threaded and whirled around his head:

You knotted the frail harness, spoke,
Revolved. Eureka! Round your head
Whirred a living emerald satellite.

The experience is absorbed as a “modulation into a brighter key / Of terror we survive to play.”

Teach me, lizard, kitten, scarabee—
Gemmed coffer opening on the dram
Of everlasting life he represents,
His brittle pharoahs in the vale of Hence
Will hear who you are, who I am,
And how you bound him close and set him free.

What he shares with the creatures is a moment at the gates of some other world, not insisted on, but imagined as if he were enjoying the danger. All the Greek poems, not only the love poems, benefit from that expansion of feeling. In a dramatic monologue whose tripping couplets are meant to suggest the energetic singsong of a simple Greek speaker, “Kostas Tympakianakis,” Merrill seems almost literally to take up the speaker's invitation: “You'll see a different cosmos through the eyes of a Greek.” He adopts the violence, the pride, the clear-eyed tone of the Greek. He accepts the welcome challenge, “Use my name,” slips on the offered identity, but registers the gap between them in Kostas's final line: “Who could have imagined such a life as mine?” It is a small but telling rebuke of the poet's imagination always ticking away, its pressures momentarily relieved by taking on the voice of another. The Fire Screen contains several poems given over to the pleasures of evoking particular figures, humble like Kostas or sophisticated like Maria, the “muse of my off-days.” It sees Greek peasant life through others' eyes (“David's Night at Veliès”) or addresses itself to shared moments of happiness, as in “16.ix.65,” with “evening's four and twenty candles” and the four friends who return from the beach “with honey on our drunken feet.”

But at the core of the Greek section of this book are the love poems, some of them full of lyric intensity, others sharp and painful, like the dramatic soliloquy or fragment “Part of the Vigil,” which is, in a sense, the turning point of the affair, a surreal exploration of the images in the lover's heart:

If all you knew of me were down there, leaking
Fluids at once abubble, pierced by fierce
Impulsions of unfeeling, life, limb turning
To burning cubes, to devil's dice, to ash—
What if my effigy were down there? What,
Dear god, if it were not!
If it were nowhere in your heart!
Here I turned back.

The lover's image is to “Blaze on” in the poet's own “saved skin.” But the poems which follow register both the end of the affair and the folly of thinking of the Greek experience as an escape or oblivion. “Another August,” “A Fever” and “Flying to Byzantium” are among the most powerful poems in the book. With “Mornings in a New House,” as he imagines a dwelling half way back toward cooler American landscapes, the whole experience modulates into a new key, absorbed, retrospective, fading into myth.

It is appropriate in Merrill's work that recovery should be imagined in terms of a “new house” (or a repainted one in the more comic and detached version of “After the Fire”). “Mornings in a New House” has him, “a cold man” who “hardly cares,” slowly brought to life by a fire laid at dawn. Once again the new house is the available image to set against exposure. “The worst is over,” the fire a tamed recall of the shattered (or spent?) affair. Against its “tamed uprush … Habit arranges the fire screen.” The details of the screen, embroidered by his mother, place the entire lapsed passion into a withering perspective:

Crewel-work. His mother as a child
Stitched giant birds and flowery trees
To dwarf a house, her mother's—see
the chimney's
Puff of dull yarn! Still vaguely chilled,
Guessing how even then her eight
Years had foreknown him, nursed him, all,
Sewn his first dress, sung to him, let him fall,
Howled when his face chipped like a plate,
He stands there wondering until red
Infraradiance, wave on wave,
So enters each plume-petal's crazy weave,
Each worsted brick of the homestead,
That once more, deep indoors, blood's drawn,
The tiny needlewoman cries,
And to some faintest creaking shut of eyes
His pleasure and the doll's are one.

It is hard to disentangle the impulses which contribute to this poem—harder even because the poet has added a footnote taking some of it back, imagining passion as itself a defense, not a danger, like the screen of fire that protects Brünnhilde in Wagner's opera. But, in the poem proper, the fire screen is devised against the damages of love. It bears, in a sense, the whole retrospective power of his writing, the ability of memory and art to absorb and rearrange experience. What marks this off from earlier moments in Merrill's poetry is the long perspective which the poem opens up, receding past his immediate pain, past his own childhood of “The Broken Home,” to his mother who stitched the screen as a device involving her mother.

After all the carefully noted impulses in The Fire Screen to leave the mother behind—the attempts to rinse away her handwriting in “Friend of the Fourth Decade”; even the efforts to be free of Latin languages, the...

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Robert von Hallberg (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “James Merrill: Revealing by Obscuring,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, 549-71.

[In the following essay, Hallberg maintains that Merrill's work features an ironic criticism of the conventions of confessional poetry, and instead prefers evasion and secrecy.]

Too much understanding petrifies.

“From the Cupola”1

The term “confessional poetry” has earned widespread skepticism: as a generic term, it is mainly misleading.2 Yet it would be hard to trace the development of recent American poetry without reference to the influence of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), Robert...

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Irvin Ehrenpreis (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Merrill,” in Poetries of America: Essays on the Relation of Character to Style, edited by Daniel Albright, University Press of Virginia, 1989, pp. 192-206.

[In the following essay, Ehrenpreis analyzes The Book of Ephraim, Mirabell, and Scripts for the Pageant as a related “three-part enterprise.”]

Anyone who wants evidence that James Merrill has held on to his formidable gifts as a poet should look at a few sections of his recent books, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). Merrill's versatility and inventiveness fill a description of the small town of Stonington, Connecticut, on Block...

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J. D. McClatchy (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Monsters Wrapped in Silk: James Merrill's Country of a Thousand Years of Peace,” in Contemporary Poetry, Vol. IV, No. 4, 1982, pp. 1-30.

[In the following essay, McClatchy studies the elusive poems of Country of a Thousand Years of Peace.]

Eight years elapsed between James Merrill's First Poems (1951) and the publication of The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, the longest interval between any two of his poetry collections. During that time Merrill made two important moves. One, his change of residence from New York City to Stonington, a traditional Connecticut seacoast village, was a kind of strategic withdrawal and resettlement...

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Ross Labrie (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: James Merrill, Twayne Publishers, 1982, 166 p.

[In the following excerpt, Labrie surveys the poetry of Merrill's Water Street, Nights and Days, and Braving the Elements.]


The most noticeable difference between the poems in Water Street (1962) and Merrill's earlier work is the relaxed tone. The poems show him in a bemused but absorbed conversation with himself. He wrote the poems from the settled perspective of the house he shared with David Jackson in Stonington, Connecticut, the restive years in New York and the years of foreign travel now well behind him. He divided his time in the early...

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Judith Moffett (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1984, 247 p.

[In the following excerpt, Moffett calls The Changing Light at Sandover“Merrill's greatest achievement” and probes the sources of composition and themes of the work.]

Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue
Fragments in revolution, with no clue
To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,
Putting together Heaven, yet we do.

—“Lost in Translation”

I have received from whom I do not know
These letters. Show me, light, if they make sense.

—“From the Cupola”



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Stephen Yenser (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: The Consuming Myth: The Works of James Merrill, Harvard University Press, 1987, 367 p.

[In the following excerpt, Yenser explores the themes, imagery, and structure of Merrill's Late Settingsand his verse drama The Image Maker.]

Divides and rejoins, goes forward and then backward.

Heraclitus (trans. Guy Davenport)

“What next? What next?”

Manuel in The Image Maker

The sun sets, and songs are set, and lines of type, and precious stones. “Setting” also signifies surroundings, and scenery—and on the one hand an ambush, on the other a table laid for guests. “Late” too has...

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Timothy Materer (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Error of His Ways: James Merrill and the Fall into Myth,” in American Poetry, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 64-86.

[In the following essay, Materer probes the mythic unconscious of Merrill's poetry.]

You will recall that in the case of the [slip of the tongue] the man was asked how he had arrived at the wrong word ‘Vorschwein’ and the first thing that occurred to him gave us the explanation. Our technique with dreams, then, is a very simple one, copied from this example … the dreamer knows about his dream; the only question is how to make it possible for him to discover his knowledge and communicate it to us....

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Helen Vendler (review date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Chronicles of Love and Loss,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 8, May 11, 1995, pp. 46-51.

[In the following review of Merrill's final poetry collection, Vendler investigates the retrospective verse of A Scattering of Salts.]

James Merrill, who died on February 6 of this year, gave his last volume the title A Scattering of Salts. In such a phrase there are overtones of tears, savors, and fragrances, yet with a clear implication, too, that these astringent crystals are scattered at intervals in the diffuse and oceanic medium of life. Merrill, for all the poignancy of his work, was a comic poet in the line of Pope and Byron and Auden; and...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. “Rethinking Models of Literary Change: The Case of James Merrill.” American Literary History 2, No. 2 (Summer 1990): 299-317.

Considers Merrill's postmodernism despite the apparent conventionality and formalism of his verse.

Buckley, C. A. “Quantum Physics and the Ouija-Board: James Merrill's Holistic World View.” Mosaic 26, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 39-61.

Views Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover as “a blend of science and visionary lore spliced with topical issues and autobiography.” Buckley suggests that Merrill's objective in the work is to confront science with...

(The entire section is 561 words.)