Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3662
Merrill, James 1926–
An American poet, novelist, and playwright, Merrill is the author of The Country of 1000 Years of Peace (poems). (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
James Merrill is the most graceful, attractive, and accomplished of the "elegants": the highly skilled, charming, agreeable craftsmen of the forties and fifties who promised most and delivered least. These are the leisurely European travelers: the rootless, well-mannered, multilingual young men: the sophisticated, talented, slightly world-weary occasional poets of the last twenty years, who have done everything perfectly according to quite acceptable standards, and have just as surely stopped short of real significance, real engagement…. The goals which Merrill has set himself have served as ideals for dozens of books of verse during the last two decades, among which Merrill's two volumes [First Poems and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems] are both entirely typical and distinctly superior. Reading them, one is content and even glad to set the stronger passions aside, and most of actual life aside, and to enter a realm of connoisseurish aesthetic contemplation, where there are no things more serious than gardens (usually formal), dolls, swans, statues, works of art, operas, delightful places in Europe, the ancient gods in tasteful and thought-provoking array, more statues, many birds and public parks, and, always, "the lovers," wandering through it all as if they surely lived. It is a strangely Jamesian poetry, though lacking James's strongly moral point of view; it has enough of James's insistence upon manners and decorum to evoke a limited admiration for the taste, wit, and eloquence that such an attitude makes possible, and also enough to drive you mad over the needless artificiality, prim finickiness, and determined inconsequence of it all….
[Within] a very large variety of forms, all the poems are pretty much the same. Each of them entails the weaving of an elaborate figure of speech in a shimmering mesh of its own correspondences and identifications, its connotations and its teased-out reciprocal agreements. Like Wallace Stevens, whose manner has provided a haven for shoals of young American poets who have nothing much to write about, Merrill operates exclusively in that area where objects are engaged in becoming assemblages of approximate comparisons of other things to themselves. Unlike Stevens's poems, whose meanings are usually implicit and frequently open to a number of interpretations, Merrill's nearly always make neat summations, prefigure, insist on, furnish explicit judgments, instruct, edify, so that experience itself comes to resemble a kind of dandyish, Gidean private-school teacher. This is, I suppose, a way of making the world safe for poetry, but somehow one hates to think of its being made this safe.
James Dickey, "James Merrill" (1959), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 97-100.
James Merrill is an excellent poet, who has not, it seems to me, gotten anywhere near the praise and recognition he deserves. His very early poems (the volume under review [Nights and Days] is his fourth) were beautifully executed but somewhat frail, especially in comparison with the work in Water Street and Nights and Days. Without sacrificing any of their technical skill, his poems have become more openly dramatic, and he manages some weird effects by sometimes deliberately clouding our sense of who precisely the dramatis personae are. There are poems in which the "you" being addressed is not quite distinct from the poet; but...
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this calculated uncertainty about pronouns gives an interesting excitement to the poems when it occurs. Inasmuch as Mr. Merrill has also written several plays (as well as two novels), it is not surprising that his poems should have this particular dramatic flavor, which is there even in the most meditative of them.
Anthony Hecht, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1966, pp. 331-32.
Nights and Days contains poems as supple as those of Water Street  and continues its surprising liberties. But it includes something further, two important long poems, "From the Cupola" and "The Thousand and Second Night," the latter of which seems to me Merrill's best work. It is amusing and rapid, slips quite easily into prose interludes and a mocking verse analysis of itself, all this without sacrificing formal intensity….
Merrill's poems are some of the most convincing expressions we have of the pressure of fantasy, and of the abiding, unavoidable connections between fantasy and the commonplace. Against these fantasies play the voices of the possible…. Rich imaginings about time have been tested against neglect and procrastination….
[The] special strangeness of Merrill's style [is] its taut alertness to meanings that lurk in words and phrases one casually comes upon. One finds this in all good poets, but here raised to a habit of vigilance, a quickened control and poise, sometimes bravado, that he clearly believes in as a source of power….
Finally, what marks off Nights and Days as a distinct collection is its strong sense of how Time shadows a life. Time's presence is stronger and more troubling than it was in Water Street. An inverse measure of the control and poise mustered against it are those moments when figures do "let go," like the speaker at the end of the poem "Time," who catches sight of something "not unlike / Meaning relieved of sense," or the man whose resisted temptation in "A Carpet Not Bought" cannot save him from "that morning … When sons with shears / Should set the pattern free / To ripple air's long floors / And bear him safe / Over a small waved sea." Or the splendid moment at the end of "The Thousand and Second Night" when the captivity of fantasy and flesh is finally ended and Scheherezade takes her leave of the Sultan. These visions are the most gifted passages in the poems, often occurring powerfully in their last lines. But they are measured, guarded by "an old distrust of imaginary scenes." The passion for release haunts Nights and Days, though it remains, now, wisely, a passion unfulfilled, deferred, glimpsed in its relation to the nagging voices of everyday.
David Kalstone, "Merrill," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1967 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Winter, 1967, pp. 146-50.
Without becoming facile, Merrill is a master of quotation, verse form, tone, and rhetoric; and he uses all of these with daring ingenuity that yet never exceeds the bounds of witty, educated conversation on the one hand and sonorous, nobly-stated passion on the other. He knows how to conceal art, to casually introduce important symbols or images, to set a scene or sketch a character economically, a skill perhaps learned from his experiences as novelist and dramatist. He takes full advantage of the possibility in his autobiographical poems to comment wryly on his art….
However, as the form of the poem, and as the countless "felicities" of expression within it, constantly remind us, these casual moments are carefully planned, foils against which to measure the grander, more far-reaching lines and at the same time the solid soil from which the "pyrotechnics," as he calls them, the flights of great emotional and intellectual power, take off; yet what so often impresses us is not the magniloquence of his more gradiose passages, for they are usually quite simple in diction, but rather the delicate, artful restraint that holds the passion within the lines themselves and the reach of the imagination to find the perfect image….
Merrill … is very much concerned with "masks" of various sorts, and one mask of which he is wary is that of the poetic image or metaphor, always aware of it betraying him, yet forced to use it. His longer poems in particular have the temporal movement of prose, rather than the spatial fixity of poetry, allowing him greater freedom of movement between tones, themes, meanings. He is conscious of time's flow, and what interests him is the past apprehended now after a moment of change, the juxtaposition of past and present as separated by an instant in which a revelation has taken place, two views of reality; but the interest is more in the disparity between the two states than in delving into the essence or inscape of the crisis….
Masks and mirror images are important figures in Merrill's poetry, for they signify the boundary between reality and illusion, life and death—the illusory and transitory nature of life—in fact the tenuousness of all we see and cherish. His great concern for tenderness, and the delicate modulations of his own tones and verse forms, the sensitivity with which he captures fleeting human emotions, imply vulnerability to destruction and change in the world, an elusive mutable world of appearances that always changes or is capable of changing, a fragile world in which the image we see … must be treated gently for it to survive….
James Merrill is not a modern Gothic poet. However, I think the frequent presence of … spirits and seemingly magical manifestations of natural occurrences is important for understanding the poet's view of the world and the poetic process, as well as the kind of poetry he writes. The transformation of the natural, autobiographical, narrative events and tones into the magical, universal, sonorous, eternal is one of the principal characteristics of Merrill's poetry, perhaps the main source of its splendid and moving qualities. Furthermore, in the intuitive sense of something beneath the face of causality and human pain may lie the basis of the rare moments of hope and affirmation to be found in his poems. He recognizes a reality behind the mask, just as he is always conscious of the reality behind the metaphor….
I am tempted to regard this writer whose works are filled with taut emotion, and for whom love is so important, as a philosophical poet. The personal emotion is always powered beyond the immediate boundaries of the situation in time and space by a complex, sophisticated view of existence, perception, the nature of art, the nature of human life. Personal sorrow and joy reveal unexpected resonances. The interrelationship of emotion and intellectual perception is always affirmed, and nowhere more clearly than in the rhetoric itself, moving from the wry, self-conscious, literary comments of the poet to passages of great emotional vitality.
This splendid combination of emotion; intellect; verbal power; technical virtuosity, daring, and sensitivity; and a seemingly infallible ear makes James Merrill clearly one of the most outstanding poets currently writing in English, and the greatest developments of his talents thus far is represented by Nights and Days.
Andrew V. Ettin, "On James Merrill's 'Nights and Days'," in Perspective, Spring, 1967, pp. 33-51.
James Merrill's Nights and Days is so dazzling, one hardly knows how to evaluate it. He is gifted with high intelligence and a natural sense of form; he has acquired a rare control of the craft. Few poets are capable of this sort of grace….
One thinks of the importance of … Marcel Proust, whose influence is evident in Nights and Days. What Mr. Merrill lacks is the seriousness that one never doubts in Proust—a ruling passion that demands our attention and makes us feel that to slacken our interest would be a betrayal of the author's own incredible devotion to the characters and the story. Even assuming a greater sense of personal involvement, such an opulent and heady world requires a larger framework—a long novel, for example—to ease the reader into, and make him accept, the writer's world. "The Thousand and Second Night" offers the most annoying examples of the faults I have mentioned. "Time" uses much the same sort of material and technique but is convincing…. It is attractive to think that perhaps James Merrill may develop to maturity as Proust did, and that we may come to see in Nights and Days the same mixture of limitation and promise that we now see in Proust's early Pleasures and Days.
Richard Tillinghast, in The Southern Review, Vol. V, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 585-86.
Not an end in themselves but an ongoing ("a nature / which existed to be overthrown"), not pride of place but the modesty of replacement ("tones one forgets / even as one is changed for life by them"): continuing powers! To them is made the apostrophe, to them is offered the hope of what we prosaically call, in a poet's career, his transitional work. The hinge (as the word hinge once meant a hesitation, a hanging between) holding together the familiar, the accomplished, the done for on one side of the door ("certain things die only with onself"), and on the other the hankered-after, the heterogonous ("to greet the perfect stranger")—that is the function and the emblem of James Merrill's new book [The Fire Screen]. A look, in fact, at the characteristically emblematic title and its provenance will serve to show what we are up against, what we are squeezed between….
With all his urbanity on the ready like a revolver, Merrill will proceed into new territory then, as resolved to mistrust the trance—"godgiven, elemental"—as to transcend the merely mastered. Chief among the preoccupations in this new book, then, will be the harping upon, the harking back to pure personality: the calcined, clarified contour of identity when the accidents of period and place are consumed….
Merrill counterpoints and orchestrates what I have called his transition. These civilities, these reticences ballast that other impulse so searing as to be suspect: the impulse which in one poem titled after Yeats (a constantly invoked figure here, even when he is gently mocked) is called "More Enterprise" [in going naked]—the impulse to reduce to anonymity, which in poetry is to be reduced to riches.
Richard Howard, in Shenandoah, Winter, 1971, pp. 84-6.
James Merrill's First Poems had already revealed an accomplished technician, intricately teasing out paradox and symbol in a metaphor-bejeweled language at once dazzling and opaque. Themes were developed in an imagery rich in suggestions of pain, illness, malice, perversity, a cruelty flashing out in the midst of lyric celebration…. From the start, Merrill's imagination has been fascinated by the interplay between the real and the artificial, tempted to prefer the latter to the former: the mirrored reflection to the actual face (the mirror in his poetry becomes virtually a signature), a man in a painting to a real man, a stage scene to a scene in the living world. In The Fire Screen, we see these early powers and tendencies fully matured. All the brilliance of the early poems remains, all the virtuosity; paradox, symbol, image, literal statement coalesce in densely meaningful forms which have also, strangely, become less opaque, more accessible.
Marie Borroff, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1971, pp. 282-84.
Mr. Merrill is "a sleuth of the oblique," he delights in experiment and latitude, trying anything provided his taste allows it. If he carries his meditation lightly, the reason is that he is not intimidated by anything he knows of horror or boredom: whatever he knows, he can tackle. He has little time for time, if it offers itself as a gloomy topic, portentously overcast.
For him, the significance of life consists in extension, the wonderful fact that we have not exhausted the mind, though we threaten to exhaust ourselves.
Denis Donoghue, "Waiting for the End," in The New. York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), May 6, 1971, pp. 27-31.
The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively wait for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you long for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry. With an impatience that picks up [The New Yorker] to see if there is a new poem, that goes to poetry readings to glean another sheaf, Merrill's readers have been assembling [Braving the Elements], his sixth book of poems, in their minds in order to possess it before it emerges between covers.
Merrill is now 46, and it is in the last 10 years, with his last four books of poems, that he has become one of our indispensable poets, earning that final unquestioned role of a sibling in our family, so that it no longer matters what exactly he does or what ups and downs he shows, since we take the latest news from his quarter as another entry in our common journal, we trust him, we accept wrong turnings as readily as right ones, certain that he knows his own way and will find it.
In this volume, Merrill has found a use, finally, for all his many talents….
Merrill has arrived at an instantly recognizable personal voice—even its awkwardnesses are genuine. He refuses to give up either side of his language—the pure concentrate of distilled essence, present since his beginnings, and the more recent importation of casual talk, even down to slang and four-letter words. The forms Merrill has used before—dream, myth, ballad, sacred objects—re-emerge on these pages with greater or lesser success….
It is hard to know where Merrill will go from here—whether he will set himself to a Proustian remembering and give us more vignettes of the past or whether some new convulsion of life will wreck the fine equilibrium by which, in this book, the four racing winds are held and viewed.
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 24, 1972, p. 5ff.
With Braving the Elements, his sixth book of poems, a wider public reputation may finally overtake James Merrill. But that has never been the point. For the relatively small audience who seriously and regularly follow poetry, he has been one of the most valued writers, and his books are eagerly awaited and honored, as was Nights and Days, which won the National Book Award in 1967. He was probably, along with W. S. Merwin, the most precocious poet of his generation, the dazzling verbal gifts of his First Poems (1951) intimidating readers and writers alike. But what won him continuing admiration was not only the accumulation of memorable poems but the display, through successive collections, of what a poetic career should be. He was, clearly, "a man choosing the words he lives by," his wit and eloquence, his richness of language a way of discovering and disciplining feeling. It is a steady performance like his—the continuing revision of his life through his work—that confirms our sense of poetry as an honest and vital instrument.
David Kalstone, "The Poet-Private," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, December 2, 1972; used with permission), December 2, 1972, pp. 43-5.
Braving the Elements is James Merrill's sixth collection of poems. Ever since 1951, when his work first surfaced, people have been observing that Merrill has great skill—an observation about as useful as pointing out that a whale in the sea has a lot of swimming ability. It has taken a while to realize that, for all his technical dexterity, Merrill also carries a good deal of meaning; and that his craft is never displayed merely for its own sake. If there were some justice in Merrill's being branded as a courtly poet without a court, his later poems have grown more evidently personal and more adventurous….
Merrill may well be our subtlest examiner of waking nightmares, some of them apparently his own. The usual protagonist of a Merrill poem is an individual who bears (I suspect) certain likenesses to Merrill himself: a less innocent Lambert Strether moving uneasily through an era of hard acid rock and public assassinations. Sensitive, middle-aging, he skims along the border of his society, skeptical of self-dramatizing public statesmen, distrustful of the daily newspaper and its "bulletin-pocked columns," unwilling to be Aquarianized by his counter-culture neighbors…. Merrill generally prefers to write in traditional stanzas and measures, restoring life to them. He does so, certainly, not out of any craven unwillingness to experiment: see his previous poetry collection The Fire Screen, and his technically radical novel The (Diblos) Notebook. His mastery of forms, whether new or old, keeps his self revelatory poems (and some of them are painful) from the worst lapses of recent poets of the confessional school. Merrill never sprawls, never flails about, never strikes postures. Intuitively he knows that, as Yeats once pointed out, in poetry "all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt."
A superiority of Merrill's is that, along with a crushing burden of sophistication, he carries a childlike freshness of observation, a certain ability to look back into his boyhood with detachment. I have long been fond of Merrill's poems written from a child's point of view (especially those in Water Street), and although "Days of 1935" may not be the most profound poem in this new lot, it strikes me as immensely funny and warm….
Although readers may be about to catch up with Merrill, as they caught up with Wallace Stevens, I don't expect him to become popular, or even academically fashionable. His view of the universe is essentially grim: in "Mandala," all creation is seen spinning down into a whirlpool of extinction, never to return. If it weren't for Merrill's humor his compassion, his magnificent art, he might seem a poet of dead ends, a cold fish, an admirable but completely unlovable artificer. As he is, however (and you must read him for yourself), I consider him one of the few living Americans fit to represent us if the supper table of Parnassus were to be set this very night. You could trust him to sit down, without disgracing his native roots, in the company of Rilke and Laforgue, and to hold up his end of the conversation.
X. J. Kennedy, "Translations from the American," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1973, pp. 101-03.