Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137
Merrill, James 1926–
Merrill is a gifted "neometaphysical" poet, a playwright, and novelist. He has won several important awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry in 1967. Critics agree that his particular language, the "elusive prose structure that he works against the verse structure of the poem," is his most distinguished poetic achievement. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
With almost masochistic glee Paul Valéry lamented the poet's lack of a musician's precision tools: "no tuning forks, no metronomes, no inventors of scales or theoreticians of harmony." The poet must "borrow language" from which he creates his own mode of expression. The studious craft of James Merrill's mode is increasingly evident. Within the past two years he has published his most perfectly achieved volume of poems, Braving the Elements, (1972); several subsequent poems which indicate he has entered a mature and sustained phase of his career; and The Yellow Pages (1974)—a volume of previously uncollected early and late poems (1947–1968) "thrust aside" over the years in the compilation of his several published volumes. In effect, by showing us the rejected poems—"yellowed, brittle with reproach"—he has helped define his achieved style. (p. 151)
Both the poems of The Yellow Pages and those of even his most recent volumes rely heavily on the traditional forms, meter, and rhyme of English prosody. One of the elements which makes the "selected" poems more successful is that Merrill understands Mallarmé's lesson to Degas: "Poems are made not with ideas but words."… Indeed, Merrill's poems move and fulfill themselves as the words—chiseled and molded by the poet's extraordinary intuition and feeling—evoke and whisper their hidden resources: feelings and states of being only suggested in the poem but intuited precisely by the reader. (pp. 161-62)
[Images] of love, knowledge, creativity, and fire grow variously in symbolic density throughout Merrill's poetry…. In recent poems, he seems to prefer the later stages of biogeological life processes: creativity is represented in precious gems, crystal prisms, geological rock, and metals cooled into luminosity. As so often in Merrill, one is reminded of Proust when he speaks of the mind as a mineral deposit of life containing a potential work of art. The cooling of his symbols may reflect Merrill's growing mastery, but the phenomenological force of fire remains. (p. 166)
James Merrill has evolved his phenomenology of fire within three quite distinct generic forms which he handles with equal mastery: and multi-sectioned meditations on time and the aesthetic process—the genre to which "18 West 11th Street" belongs. Each form aims at aesthetic possession. The worlds of the long ballad narratives—the dwindling aristocracy of an eastern summer resort in "The Summer People" (The Fire Screen, 1969) and a child's wish-fulfillment dream of kidnap in "Days of 1935" (Braving the Elements)—are framed in mock-heroic caricature…. The brief lyrics hold the world in monadic emblems cut and polished so precisely as to reflect the lights of Merrill's entire work. (They are abstract enough to reflect as well any lights the readers might bring.) Their monadic quality isolates much of Merrill's phenomenology of fire. (pp. 168-69)
[The] … long discursive lyrics … reveal his phenomenology of fire and coalesce his biographical and aesthetic themes. Like the odes of the Romantic poets, they share several thematic and stylistic traits which are consistent and strong enough to give them the character of a personal genre…. Movement is more in the rhythm of ritual dance—measured, repeated steps with darkly significant variations—than narrative action; fire—in any of its many forms—is more the protagonist than the poet who observes and meditates; and eroticism is closer to the core than to the surface. When the focus has narrowed sufficiently to burn through the poet's self-absorption, remaining under the thin gauze of ashes is the poem: a cooling artifice which coalesces and refigures the past.
Merrill's gradual mastery of this genre accompanies the subtle refinement of the forms and music of his poems. Several of the long lyrics ["An Urban Convalescence," "The Broken Home," and "The Friend of the Fourth Decade," among others] anticipate "18 West 11th Street" in presenting erotic trauma and violent conflict between generations. (p. 172)
Phenomenologically, fire has rarely been considered a part of nature. Rather it is man's divinely inspired instrument for transforming nature to his own purposes. In nature itself, as in Merrill's later poetry, the heat of biological life is buried, pressured and frozen into mineral form. Were future semiologists to compare the "deep structure" shared by the progression of life from the flushed heat of living organisms to the cool brilliance of precious stones and the trajectory of aesthetic processes, James Merrill's poetry could well be their "mastermind." (p. 183)
Merrill is the finest poet translating the tradition of French symbolism into the English language. On the European continent, the predominant force in contemporary poetry is still the symbolist movement. In the English speaking world other currents have deflected that potent language because Yeats found few successors sufficiently gifted in the style. Merrill is fluent in it. And if we are to understand lyrical poetry in the etymological sense of rootedness in musical expression, Merrill is one of its few preeminent masters. (p. 184)
Richard Sáez, "James Merrill's Oedipal Fire," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 159-84.
[With] the loss of Auden, Merrill is now arguably our best living writer of English verse, and what he has discarded [McClatchy is referring to the fact that The Yellow Pages is a collection of poems excluded from earlier collections] would distinguish any other poet's career.
There are the Czerny exercises, brilliantly executed: sonnet, sestina, villanelle, and imitation; there are occasional pieces for friends, wisdom works, and souvenirs of familiar landscapes: Athens, New Mexico, and pauses on the Grand Tour. More fascinating and valuable, though, is the way this catch-all book lines up as a graph that plots the ways Merrill has versed his voice across a career—from the clever to the calculated to the characteristic. (p. 425)
The later poems, which go from strength to strength, echo what Merrill has sounded in his recent collections: the details of his experience refound and refined into extraordinarily subtle, sometimes spare, always open examples of an art that "invents" the life it discovers…. Favorite themes recur. Certainly no poet has better articulated the intricacies of loves held and lost…. though his most insistent concern has always been the flow and flaws of time—if there is finally any difference between love and time. It is a concern mirrored in Merrill's uncanny control of line and stanza, the rhythms of speech and verse, as well as in his need to shore the sensual detail against the ruins thematically implied. (p. 426)
J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1975.