Merrill, James (Vol. 8)
Merrill, James 1926–
Merrill is an American poet, novelist, and playwright. Throughout his distinguished career his poetry has grown more ambitious and his explorations of the human mind more intense. His exquisite, meditative poems have won for him both the Bollengen Prize and the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Auden would have liked ["Divine Comedies"]—in fact, he is mentioned in it as one of the spirits who, from the next world, act as "patrons" of the living. A spirit named Ephraim tells the narrator, J. M., and his friend, D. J., that spirits must return to earth repeatedly, as to a school, until they have worked through their ignorance. (p. 6)
Ingenious? Witty? Merrill's writing is all of that. But the reader who wants to be gripped by strong feelings or a plot will be disappointed. Merrill has staked out his claim very nicely, thank you; I have the impression that he would think the demands made upon poetry by a certain kind of reader—for example, the reader who is looking for strong feelings—irrelevant if not absurd. There are two kinds of poets. The first believe that poetry is a language-skill, that poems are constructed with words, not emotions. Auden was of this opinion and said so more than once. He said that if a young man wanted to write poetry in order to say something important, then there wasn't much likelihood of his being a poet. On the other hand, if he wanted to see what he could do with words, then there was a possibility. James Merrill and one or two other American poets—John Ashbery and W. S. Merwin come to mind—have taken Auden's way. For these writers, poetry is a word-game of a high order. It is a matter of style. It is not circumscribed by nature and, in the long run, it may adopt some form of religion. For Auden toward the end of his life, Pope was a great poet and Romantic poets of any kind were anathema.
The other kind of poet believes that poetry is a product of feeling rather than wit. He believes that words are not chosen by the poet's rational mind but, to the contrary, may be forced upon him, and the best writing is done this way….
For getting through life with sense and charm, even with some Sybaritic pleasure, as Merrill's narrator evidently does, the first kind of writing is the kind to choose. It can be worked at intelligently and it leads somewhere. It is likely to wind up with the prizes. Auden was a brilliant writer of verse, unfailingly articulate and witty. I suspect, however, that his way of writing will be of interest to fewer and fewer people as time goes by—especially in the United States where life is not witty and does not aim to be articulate.
James Merrill, too, is a brilliant writer, operating on a level of high style. A society of cultivated readers might give his "Divine Comedies" a high place. At its best, as in the poem titled "Chimes for Yahya," his writing is exotic and picturesque. The tone of easy, intimate conversation is a stylistic achievement. It is hardly the poet's fault that there are few readers of this kind of poetry. For that matter, there are few readers of poetry of any kind—people seem just as oblivious of the poetry that intends to render "feelings" or describe "real life." So Merrill may as well please himself and his friends, and be as capricious as he likes. (p. 7)
Louis Simpson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1976.
Misunderstanding his gifts, James Merrill has written a long, a very long, poem, "The Book of Ephraim." He is not one disposed to call things deeply into question; nor does he wield a comic whip. He is a thoroughly personal poet with a gift for appreciating his own life, pains and all. The epic size is too coarse and ambitious for him. As it is, he has written a poem neither imposingly public nor poignantly personal. "The Book of Ephraim" is made out of the stuff of conversation among intimates. To read it is at best a desultory pleasure, like treading agreeable water….
"The Book of Ephraim" has neither thought nor plot, and its casual record is made still more desultory by references to a lost and uncompleted novel that of course means more to Merrill than to us. We shuttle between the aimless and the scant. And occasionally the poet's musings twist and preen themselves into defeating abstraction….
[Merrill] is a man with an almost crippling, almost enabling love of his own past, his old loves. He needs the deep place, the small pool, to find how close he is, how far after all, from the ecstasy of being self and other, actor and his own audience, simultaneously. (p. 22)
Merrill's modesty and tact are almost a vice of privacy. As if invented by Henry James, he has often been self-effacing without quite displacing himself with the objects of his love, objects made autonomous. They live by their refraction in his feeling. Still, "Chimes for Yahya" has sufficient detail to give firmness (and finely exotic detail it is). The poem triumphs typically, too, through the Jamesian "quality" of the poet's mind and the related sweet radiance of his words.
This radiance does not show well in brief quotation. It has no flash. Steadily, as in the best poem in the volume, "Lost in Translation," it shines through many words, part warmth of attitude, part grace of motion. Here no line is brilliant, none is dull. The subject of the poem—a memory of putting a puzzle together with his "French Mademoiselle"—is likewise unremarkable, save that, in remarking it, the poet makes it live. The slight materials do not feel slight. Here is a child's loneliness, his capacity for absorption in puzzling representations of life, his romance with those who care for him, with history, with what is known only by hearsay and by wish. Here is the man that child fathered trying to father the child through completeness of memory and the magic of verse. It is nearly done. Perhaps it is done. The child is rephrased by the man and nothing seems lost in translation. (pp. 22-3)
Calvin Bedient, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 5, 1976.
Our situation as readers [of The Book of Ephraim] is not unlike that of the Wedding-Guest before the Ancient Mariner; and, like him, we must eventually be able to see through the strangeness of the tale, and our captivation by the teller, to the more this-worldly lesson they bear. If James Merrill is without a "glittering eye," he is not without equally dazzling devices for holding and enchanting the reader, but unless we can see through the poetic effects to the "unsteady ground" … for which they exist, they will have been created in vain. And we, as I believe, will be the worse for it.
The basic strategy of the poem is Romantic, the recreation of experience and its recollection in relative tranquillity, but the terms of the enchantment are distinctly modern: what is asked of the reader, as it is exemplified by the poet, is both submersion in and resistance to the other-worldly revelation in the poem. We are, by now, perhaps all too ready to suspend disbelief, and it is one of the poet's chief concerns to guard against this possibility, to muffle credulity even as he attempts to unbutton skepticism. His diffidence as to the reality of Ephraim and as to the particulars of Ephraim's revelation is, however, neither more nor less than the strongest of the strands in that net of enchantment from which we must at last free ourselves—in order, that is, to see the poem for what at least in part it is: an instance of the admission of the Other. (p. 64)
The Book of Ephraim is composed of something approaching 2500 lines of fine unto exquisite poetry; and the achievement of the poem everywhere weighs on the reader, particularly the reader who would ask more—or other—of a poem, especially one of such ambitious length, than evidence of poetic mastery…. [The] suspicion that while little can be done in poetry without a master's skill, that skill alone guarantees nothing, [makes] the poem's accomplishment as poetry all the more, if I may put it so, insidious. Or captivating: for the attention the verse calls to itself is attention drawn away from the poem's matter…. The Book of Ephraim is a particular case for [a] general principle … appropriate to the poem's theme; namely, art is a place where the human and the divine meet. The verse, then, would partake of and give insight into that relationship that is the explicit matter of the poem. More, the verse's variations will prove to be revealing in ways that the language of the poem as statement will not be, for if it were the spell the poet is concerned to cast would be badly damaged if not absolutely torn. In other words, we must neither be taken in nor put off by the mastery of the poetry; we must resist even as we give ourselves over to its dazzling shallows, for beneath lie profundities indeed.
Similar difficulties, and opportunities, are presented us by the paraphernalia of the poem's revelation—ouija board, familiar spirit, mediums, the "whole/Fantastic monkey business of the soul/Between lives, gathered to its patron's breast"…. Whatever our preconceptions about such things, the poet is continually at our ear counseling by exhibiting tentativeness, the steering of a course between "Milton" and Auden (between, that is, "ghastly on the spot/Conversion" and "Impatience with folderol"), and it is just this advice that is meant to enchant us. For we know, or seem to remember knowing, that while the extremes of fanatic commitment to or contemptuous disdain for anything may be avoided, there is no third alternative to belief or disbelief. But the poet's own apparent uncertainty, his care to give more attention to the pros and cons than most would ever have thought themselves interested to hear, invites just that suspension of fixed ideas that once upon a time was taken to be poetry's peculiar genius.
Another inducement to tentativeness, part of the weaving of the spell, is the possibility that what is revealed in The Book of Ephraim is simply the poet's invention…. [It] may occur to us, and will nowhere be explicitly denied, that the "Projection" might as well be artistic as psychological, in which case we would be dealing not with delusion but with metaphor. That Ephraim is a character in the poem, not in the cosmos, and that the paraphernalia is figurative for what is occult in love are suggestions tendered to both the credulous and the skeptical in order to disarm them.
The main attraction in all of this, the spell-binder, is the poet's persona, a character whom I shall call the Gentleman Tempter. In attempting to define this character, Coleridge's "bright-eyed Mariner" will prove useful—and more useful still, perhaps crucial, will be recollection of the matter and the mode of The Rime itself if we are to recognize The Book of Ephraim's Romantic roots, for the profusion of Neo-classical foliage might otherwise lead us to mistake its genus.
Alexander Pope's presence in the poem is, in fact, felt as quite substantial; and, more important, his relation to the material and composition of the poem is complicated where Auden's, say, even for the space given it, is relatively straight-forward…. [Beyond] suggestions of arcane ties between [Pope and Merrill] (difficult as it is to imagine Pope thinking of couplets as bedeviling) and, what is implied, their firm footing in Locke's rendition of the Real as that which is sensuously and commonly experienced, there is the obvious relation on one of The Book of Ephraim's recurrent themes: the place of Man between Angel and Beast. I know of no other work, and certainly no contemporary work, that is so preoccupied by the conundrum at the heart of "An Essay on Man."… However, especially but not solely in terms of characterizing the Gentleman Tempter, Pope's value will be almost entirely by way of contrast. James Merrill's inclination to self-criticism, for example, opens an abyss between him and Pope, while the latter's indignation (which if not savage was by no means genteel) finds no correspondence in the former. In addition, and as a means for moving more confidently to The Book of Ephraim's Romantic lineage, where Pope was social, James Merrill is eremitic; where the one was moralistic, the other is psychological; where the great 18th century poet held that Taste and Value are objective categories, the contemporary poet's preferences are explicitly instances of his temperament. Crucially, it is in the matter of tone, where the two poets seem so much alike, that they are most diverse; for while both are urbane, I do not know that anyone has ever called Pope bewitching. Lastly, where Pope the man and Pope the speaker in his poems are not easily or even necessarily to be differentiated, it seems to me decisive that we see the seam that separates even as it joins James Merrill and the Gentleman Tempter.
That a "glittering eye" is the appropriate analogue for the speaker's wiles will be clearer in the reading of the poem's first Section …, so long as it is remembered that the polish and serenity of the verse are as important to effecting the enchantment in The Book of Ephraim as the incantatory ballad stanza is to generating that of Coleridge's Rime. Sirens are to be found in drawing rooms as well as on open seas. (pp. 64-7)
The function of the Gentleman in [the first Section] is, as I take it, to make the reader feel comfortable, to draw him into (an albeit one-sided) conversation in familiar and worldly surroundings. We are made privy to a literary confidence, the poet's failure with his novel, treated to a number of nicely turned literary and social observations, and presented with the opportunity to hear a story as distinct from any vital or immediate concerns as The Arabian Nights. In commercial jargon, a soft sell; in ethical terms, a temptation—or hard bargain. For the prologue to The Book of Ephraim constitutes not only an invitation to read, but also a temptation to learn, and what the Gentleman promises is, as ever, that knowledge will do us no harm. (pp. 71-2)
There are three formal devices that characterize the Gentleman Tempter's pitch, but while each of them might be understood as no more than a functional utensil for so large a meal (that is, something the poet was forced to use because of the poem's length rather than something he chose to use because of the poem's nature), taken together they will be seen to be indicative of that resistance to making a pitch that is characteristic of the Gentleman. I refer to 1) the muting of poetic effects, 2) the eschewing of riddles and hidden meanings, and 3) comic relief. A Gentleman does not 1) show-off, 2) play practical jokes, or 3) take things too seriously.
The basic poetic line of The Book of Ephraim is iambic pentameter, the preferred poetic unit the couplet. But only for short stretches does the poet make continuous use of either, and, still more rarely, both. While variety in metrics, rhyme-scheme etcetera is perhaps "necessary" in a poem of this length (hundreds of exceptions notwithstanding), the refraining from the preferred measures is felt in the poem as restraint that proceeds from other than formal considerations. (In Elizabethan drama, a couplet was sometimes used to close a speech delivered in blank verse, and the straining for that couplet is often felt; in James Merrill's verse, to the contrary, the straining is to escape the couplet—the bedeviling couplet.) That the poet will virtually identify rhyme and contact with the absolute in Section 'X' ought to further establish the degree to which the poetic variations are either more than functional or so profoundly functional as to disabuse us of the shallower uses to which the term is put.
The Gentleman also provides occasional reminders, or padded elbows to the ribs, so as not to appear enigmatic—or vulgarly so. Section 'R' is composed of five sonnets, for example, but they are broken into quatrains and tercets in order to conform with other stanzaic usage in the poem, so we may miss the fact that they are sonnets. Worse from the Gentleman Tempter's point of view, as I take it, is the possibility that this arrangement is meant to signal something more, or other, than the poet's love for Eleanora Deren (the "Maya" to whom the sonnets are addressed, see Section 'D'), so the fifth sonnet begins, "Leave to the sonneteer eternal youth" ('R'). The impression intended is that the reader will be met honestly.
A more important example of the disinclination to uncouth mysteriousness, to whatever might encourage occult communication between the poet and cognoscenti, is the name Ephraim is given in the poem's version of the lost novel. Ephraim is called "Eros." When the Gentleman Tempter tells us, in Section 'A', that his theme is "the incarnation and withdrawal of/A god" and then spends the first half of the poem relating this to the efflorescence and withering of a love affair, we may well imagine (since Gentleman Readers are not made in a day) that we know what "god" has come and gone. But just in case we did not know, the god's name appears in the first Section of the second half of the poem. Laying all his cards on the table, even playing the ace that many writers might have kept up their sleeves, convinces the reader of the Gentleman's high-mindedness, his candor. More important, though, this bringing of everything into the poem's mix discourages the reader from looking beyond the poem for resolution of its difficulties—in fact, from looking beyond the poem at all—and so constitutes a kind of insulation, is itself an image of that insulation from the Other that is precisely the Gentleman's mission in art. (pp. 73-5)
The Gentleman Tempter would, like the Ancient Mariner, hold us until his story is told, a story whose fluency carries as well the current of compulsion (cf. the Mariner's "strange power of speech"), and then more or less shrug us off. The telling of the story, that is, completes the circuit which, while it may be driven by contact with the supernatural, is not meant to electrify—much less, electrocute—the reader. Thus, the purpose of the enchantment, woven out of those materials described above, is as much defensive as it is attractive, and the captivation is meant to be temporary (the Ancient Mariner does not use his glittering eye to harm the Wedding-Guest, but to hold him and release him at the story's close). (p. 76)
The Book of Ephraim is composed of 26 Sections lettered A-Z; in one sense the ABC's of Ephraim, in another his Alpha and Omega. If, in terms of the poem's structure, the first image suggests a kind of primer in which the introduction to Ephraim and his revelation will be incremental and progressive, the second image suggests a compendium in which the sequence of the poem's elements will count for less than their eventual interrelatedness and the coherence of the whole they go to make up. The distinction may also be seen as that which (I believe) exists between living through an experience as it reveals itself in successive and temporal shapes and thinking about the experience, once it has been constituted as past, that may see it as whole and atemporal. I do not mean to imply that thought is ever suspended, nor that there is a change in the kind of thought involved, but that the shapes with which we are presented alter from, in the first case, something more than less serial to, in the second case, something more than less complete. (pp. 76-7)
The overwhelming majority of the poems' action flows into two pools of time (Lethe and Mnemosyne, say): the first is the period of two years from the summer of 1955 through that of 1957 (Lethe), the second is January through December, 1974, during which time The Book of Ephraim is composed (Mnemosyne). Sections 'B' through 'L' are, with two or perhaps three exceptions, largely taken up with the recreation of the experiences of the first time period; their movement, even when it is interrupted, depends upon a chronological line, and we are gradually and progressively introduced to Ephraim's cosmography. We get the sense of a primer from these Sections, and their progressive character is all the more emphatic for their narrative form, Ephraim's news being embedded as it is in the story of a love affair. But something stops in Section 'L'. Looking back on these Sections (roughly the first half of the poem) from the perspective of Sections 'M' and following, we find that they seem to constitute an action whole and complete because it is past.
If there is a narrative to action, if experience is sequential, there is as well a narrative to thinking; itself an experience, thought is successive because we can only think of one thing at a time. But the narrative line of thought, so to speak, is liable to be more complicated geometrically—at least in the record of it—than the narrative line of action, and I should say that this is particularly true when the object of thought is taken as past, is thereby understood as whole and complete in itself, and is thereby felt as resistant. (Something of the distinction I am arguing may have simply to do with conventions of literary rendering, but the conventions themselves may be well-founded.) So, in any case, we may account for the movement of Sections 'M' through 'U', which are a record of the poet's thinking about experiences that have been lived through and are understood as irremediably past. Sections 'M' through 'U' are occasionally dated, but their sequence is not based on chronology; in fact, they seem to depend for their power and coherence as a group on the suspension of time. For these Sections too, when seen from the vantage point of those ('V' through 'Z') that follow them, show themselves as a complete unit. (pp. 77-8)
[The] two pools of time mentioned earlier spill over into one another in Section 'L', where … the narrative of the two years' (1955–1957) love ends and the narrative of the year of the poem's composition (January through December, 1974) goes underground. After the series of meditations that occupies Sections 'M' through 'U', the second narrative surfaces to plain view in Section 'V' and continues to the poem's end. The trip taken in those meditative Sections is so arduous that a reminder of the more literal excursion is perhaps necessary, which is why we get the padded elbow in Section 'U'. The return to a sequence based on chronology, in Sections 'V' through 'Z', is what lets us see the speculative group as a whole—which is not to say that the poet stops thinking, and wondering, in the poem's final Sections, but that thought is once again presented with fleeting (time-unbound) images. We feel, I think, these final Sections as a return to earth…. Time, as we are abruptly reminded in Section 'V', does not stop; nor can it be, except perhaps in artful images of it, suspended. The return to earth—and Venice at that—from the apparently timeless reaches of wonder cannot but be felt as the formal or structural counterpart to the poem's inquiry into matters human and divine. And time will also prove to be only one of many things that, however much they seem to end, continue. (pp. 78-9)
Section 'F' [is] the second of the three displaced Sections in the narrative that ends in Section 'L'. That the Section is out of its place in the poem's chronological order I think we should take as extraordinarily telling: where, in certain pathological contexts, a slip of the tongue may reveal more about the gist of what is said than what is deliberate in the saying, in art a slip (or displacement) will be supremely indicative of what we read as the artist's intent. (The first of the displaced Sections is 'D', "a partial list" of the poem's Dramatis Personae; the narrative, however, is picked up at its close, and its place seems to be no more than simply functional.) Section 'F', then, is a "Flash-forward" in time; the chronicling of the events of two years is abrupted—as it could not be in fact, but can be in fiction—just at the cresting of love's wave. The intent, as we take it, is to celebrate that love before (in the poem's reliving of it) it breaks and sizzling, hissing, sinks into the sand (see Section 'L'). (p. 80)
I should note that some of The Book of Ephraim's difficulties may not be the reader's alone; there are questions that go unanswered perforce because the poet is as much in the dark as we. (p. 83)
Section 'L' (el, 'el, Hell?) is The Book of Ephraim's most important. It is made up of four parts, the first of which brings to a close the love story begun in Section 'B', or, better, the chronological narrative of two years in the love story. For we know that the love began before 1955 ("Second summer of our tenancy"; my italics), and we have had a parenthetical indication, in Section 'J', that it extended to at least 1958. But the sense that something begun in Section 'B' ends in Section 'L' is … strong…. (p. 86)
[In the] effortless transition from July, 1957, to July, 1974, another transition has taken place. The narrative of the year of the poem's composition moves from January ('A') through March ('E'), April ('F'; for the visit to Temerlin, as we can see by this scheme, is almost certainly in 1974), and May ('H'), but then it skips in Section 'L' to July—omitting June. And it is in June, 1974, as we do not learn until Section 'U', that the break with Ephraim and the SCRIBE's "Edict" come. Chronologically, Section 'U' comes before Section 'L', and the sense of finality, and even dread, that pervades 'L' is in large measure to be attributed to the events described in 'U'. The displacement of Section 'U' is The Book of Ephraim's most pronounced formal feature; and therefore … we will read in it the poet's most profound deliberation…. Moreover, we can measure the terror that attached to the break with Ephraim in Section 'U' if we read the fourth part of Section 'L' as its emotional equivalent. (p. 88)
The break with Ephraim comes in Section 'U'. The poet makes one last attempt to give a this-worldly name, and place, to those powers that have withdrawn, "Jung says … That God and the Unconscious are one" ('U'), but the struggle of these Sections to come to terms with and for those powers, like the effort of Sections 'B' through 'L' to see them as aspects of a waxing and waning love, fails. Leaving us? In Venice, with the poet, in the Augumn of 1974 and of his life.
The return to earth in The Book of Ephraim's final Sections comes as a relief; the world is, as it were, returned to the reader and to the poet. (pp. 90-1)
Henry Sloss, "James Merrill's 'Book of Ephraim'," (Part 1), in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1976, pp. 63-91.
To be delighted by a poem's wit or moved by its emotional force is rare enough; to be delighted and moved simultaneously is exceptional. One could rewrite Ben Jonson's line on the "adulteries of art" for James Merrill's new poems [Divine Comedies]: they strike our eyes and our hearts as well. Merrill is a leading poet of wit who raises sophisticated humor to its highest level since Pope, a poet of whom he is fond, and who is unafraid to build from lowly puns and spoonerisms a proper setting for themes which are the concerns of a serious poet: "the incarnation and withdrawal of a god"; the search for salvation in this world through love and in the next through a ladder of souls progressing upward; the attempt to amass, out of the mind's imagings and the heart's shadowy feelings, a sense of purpose in a shockingly transient world. The elegant objets and artifacts which used to be more in the foreground of Merrill's work have surrendered the center stage to the mature poet's humane worries. Cozy and intimate in tone, like Pope, Merrill transcends mere coterie verse. The very audacity of his title prepares us for both an amused chattiness, as if he were saying "the comedies, my dear, were simply divine," and his serious reconsideration of Dante's traversal of a universe ordered by divine love.
With this volume Merrill has realized the promise of his earlier autobiographical poems by becoming a major narrative poet. He develops in verse the suspense, human depth, and social complexity which are the stuff of fiction. More than half of Divine Comedies is a single narrative, The Book of Ephraim…. The machinery of the poem (complete with a consideration of biological evolution as a complement to progressive reincarnations toward divinity) is as delicious as anything Pope or Yeats could have contrived, and like their sylphs and spirits, is meant to be taken lightly and seriously at once.
The Book of Ephraim is novelistic in its feeling for society and in its characterization (it also gives glimpses of a lost unfinished novel of Merrill's whose characters mingle freely, in the poem, with the real people in his life); it is epic in its spatial and temporal dimensions…. The presiding spirits of the book, apart from Ephraim of course, are Proust and Dante, the first (according to Ephraim "a great Prophet throned on high") because the major question in all of Merrill's work is "Where has time flown?" and the second because the answer wherein he finds his major compensation for time's thefts is "love that makes the world go round." These clichés, from the shorter "Verse for Urania" at the beginning of the volume, cannot do justice to the depth of Merrill's effort to integrate the pieces of the past into the present…. With its interlacings of past and present, otherworldly visitors, fictional characters, and friends and family, The Book of Ephraim is more than a jigsaw puzzle. It is like life ("This World that shifts like sand, is unforeseen/Consolidations and elate routine), full of dëlightful surprises and solace. It is also a statement of faith, like the Divine Comedy. (pp. 333-34)
Willard Spiegelman, in Southwest Review (© 1976 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1976.
[What] we must attend to now is Ephraim's revelation. To do so will involve some guesswork, for a number of reasons. The most important of these is that whatever else the poem is, it is not a delivery system for dogma: the revelation is put resolutely at the service of the poetry, not vice versa.
According to Ephraim, who as we shall see is not omniscient, Heaven consists of "NINE STAGES" ('C'); he is at Stage Six. The Stages are graduated, the lowest containing "the curates and the minor mages" ('C'), the highest more "PERFECTED SOULS" of "RARER & MORE EXPERT USEFULNESS" ('Q'). Although we are not told for what precisely those at the highest Stages are more useful, we do know that work is done in the next world. Ephraim's job, for example, is to judge the newly dead, with the help of "his staff," in order to see which are fit to enter Heaven (see Section 'E'); Maya's, once she gains Paradise, is to "DIRECT SOME AVANTGARDE HALLUCI/NATIONS ETC FOR HEADS OF STATE" (the enjambment allows a 'Hail Lucy,' and Maya works for St. Lucy, to be discovered in the first three syllables of 'hallucinations'), the upshot of which is to be found in Section 'R'. Of the Stages above his, Ephraim either knows little (which seems likely) or is not allowed to speak of what he knows, except on one occasion [in Section 'P']…. (p. 84)
There is upward movement among the Stages, but when he is asked if there is travel in both directions, "Ephraim changed the subject/As it was in his tactful power to do"…. Ordinarily, we gather, progress upward is made one Stage at a time through the displacement of a "Patron" by its "Representative."
Each human being, we learn in Section 'C', is the "REPRESENTATIVE of a PATRON," the latter being a spirit who lives on one of the Stages…. While every human being has a Patron (an exception will be noted in due course), we do not know if each spirit has a Representative; that is, we do not know the proportion of the dead to the living. Ephraim does say that "Power's worst abusers" (like Hitler and "MY POOR RUINED LOVE CALIGULA") "are held … stricly INCOMMUNICADO" ('P'), so we may assume both that the next world is more populous than this one and that not all its members serve as Patrons. It seems, nonetheless, to be one of the standard tasks of the Heavenly hosts.
The Patron is responsible for the training of its Representative between lives, the point of the instruction being to permit the soul to escape life (or another life) and gain Stage One. The content of the Patron's lectures in "savior vivre" ('C') may be gathered, in a rough and ready way, from certain suggestions that Ephraim lets fall about the conduct of life. Among these is his comment, in Section 'S', that for a Patron there is "NO PUNISHMENT LIKE THAT OF BEING GIVEN/A GROSS OR SLUGGISH REPRESENTATIVE." The Patron's own "upward mobility" ('P') depends upon the Representative's achievement of Heaven (the maintenance of Heaven itself may depend on it), but we may well read in these two terms something equivalent to specific sins…. [What] the poet calls "plain old virtue" ('P') is not much rewarded in or by the Beyond…. Only between lives may the Patron "DO" anything for the Representative other than worry and, as Ephraim puts it in another context, "LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK" ('K')…. The immediate incentive for all the Patron goes through, however, is plain enough, for when the Representative succeeds to Heaven and becomes a Patron in turn, the (we may imagine) triumphant mentor moves up a "notch" ('C') in Heaven's Stages…. (pp. 85-7)
[Let us] see what more can be learned about the Heavenly scheme in the specific cases of W. H. Auden, Charles Edward Merrill (the poet's father), and Eleanora Deren ("Maya"), each of whom dies in the course of the twenty years the poem spans. In each instance, Ephraim gets in touch with the departed (by whatever means is not explained) and communication [is] … as always via the ouija board. (p. 88)
Although we are not explicitly told so, we may assume both that W. H. Auden is not to be returned to earth for another life and, I think, that his Stage in Heaven is higher than One. When Hans is at Stage One, it is described as "that of vision pure/And simple" (see Section 'D'), so the pleasure Auden takes in his "NEW" body would argue for his being at a Stage where more complex sensuous apprehension is possible; the distinction of his life and work would, as well, suggest a Stage above that of "the curates and the minor mages." That he is anxious about just that which has been left irrevocably behind will, perhaps as much as anything else, assure us that he has spent his last spell on earth, but the contrast with Charles Edward Merrill's passage through the heavens should show itself decisive.
The poet's father, "CEM," died in 1956 … (see Section 'K'), but what unhappiness the poet feels, even as it is called in question by an other-worldly observer, is difficult to sustain given Merrill Sr.'s mood when he "gets through" to Ephraim's mediums. He is "high-spirited," and "incredulous" presumably as much about where he finds himself as about his contacting his son…. [He] explains, "Some goddam fool/Hindoo is sending him to Sunday School" (his Patron, we understand, is trying to teach him the ropes that he has evidently not learned). In what is probably the same conversation, although the phrase is placed elsewhere in the poem (Section 'D'), CEM characterizes his Patron as a "DAMN POOR ADMINISTRATOR," and we may guess that the latter has very little "PEACE FROM REPRESENTATION." (pp. 88-9)
Maya, as Ephraim had informed her during her visit to the "Boys" (see Section 'G'), was in "her FIRST LAST ONLY/Life"; she had had no Patron, was herself the Patron of "The cat she felt kept dying in her stead" ('G'). Maya's case, then, is … exceptional,… and it might be noted that the Gentleman Tempter is not shy of presenting exceptions to even the sketchiest of rules, credibility being precisely what he would strain. Maya now works for St. Lucy,… but when she describes her assignment a curious note is struck: St. Lucy
ME DIRECT SOME AVANTGARDE HALLUCI
NATIONS ETC FOR HEADS OF STATE
U SHD HEAR THEM MOAN & FEEL THEM SWEATING
WE GIRLS HAVE STOPPED A WAR WITH CUBA
Here is an indication of Intervention which, far from being disapproved, is solicited by Heaven, and it will be well to keep this episode in mind. Again, as in Auden's case, we are not told Maya's Stage, but we feel it to be high, perhaps because of her effectiveness in the work described above as well as the very real sense that she is at home in Heaven. Perhaps, too, we get this sense from the high spirits of the verse…. It may also be that Maya's knowledge is what convinces us of her high Stage, but that there are limits to what Maya knows will also be seen.
If the information that can be gleaned from these episodes raises more questions than it answers, and, further, if the questions we would ask seem hardly ever to be those the poet asks of the Beyond, explanations are not wanting. For the first, the poet explains that "huge tracts of information/Have gone into these capsules flavorless/And rhymed for easy swallowing" ('C'), so what raw data we do get represent perhaps only a fraction of the total received…. For the second, there is the long Hymn to Nonchalance that closes Section 'I', "Nonchalance," that is, with regard to "… who or what we took Ephraim to be,/And of what truths (if any) we considered/Him spokesman" ('I'). But, as I believe, these explanations give off of the Gentleman Tempter; the poet's motives are far more solemn, far more serious. For now, it may suffice to say that James Merrill's handling of this material is not to be confounded with the way a not terribly diverse material is handled by Carlos Castaneda.
However little of Ephraim's revelation is simply presented for inspection, one thing that can be gathered from what we are shown is that some way of replenishing the supply of Representatives, as each becomes a Patron, will be required by the Heavenly scheme. And wondering from whence come those "brand-new little savage souls" (see the passage from Section 'C' quoted above) will return us to one of the poem's main preoccupations—the relations between man and animal.
Here is Ephraim, in 1970, on the reasons for a change in what might be called Evolutional Policy: because there are "TOO MANY CHATTY STUDENTS" and "TOO FEW DUMB/TEACHERS …, THE SCHOOLS/ARE CLOSING SO TO SPEAK" ('O'). While we may remember the closing of many Universities and Colleges following the announcement of the Cambodian air strikes in the Spring of that year, the "SCHOOLS" to which Ephraim refers are those in which human beings are the inattentive students to the instructive behavior of animals…. When we understand that these "SCHOOLS" are those from which Heaven's graduates are drawn, we may also see that "CLOSING" is portentous; for, evidently, the generalized upward motion in the other world, that is from lower to higher Stages, depends in part on pressure from below, the force that is exerted by Representatives achieving Heaven and pushing their Patrons higher. The extinction of some species (and their lessons) plus the devil-may-care comportment of human beings appear to have caused a kind of crisis, a stasis perhaps in the upward movement. (pp. 90-2)
Ephraim's ministrations as design are plainest in a poem which precedes The Book of Ephraim in the Divine Comedies …, a poem called "The Will."… Nowhere in The Book of Ephraim are things made quite so explicit [as in this poem]: Ephraim wants what he has taught his mediums writ large …; he wants, in short, that "baldest prose/Reportage … that would reach/The widest public in the shortest time" ('A') that the poet renounces at the beginning of the latter poem. Ephraim is still more explicit, apparently too explicit (for one of those indicative "pauses" follows), when he explains why he wants his "TEACHINGS" set down…. [The] poet responds. "Why, Ephraim, you belong to the old school—/You think the Word by definition good," to which an almost angry familiar spirit returns
IF U DO NOT YR WORLD WILL BE UNDONE & HEAVEN ITSELF TURN TO ONE
[What] is revealed here is so grave as to be taken as the proximate occasion for the writing of The Book of Ephraim; the interview may well be where and why the "prose/Reportage was called for" (my italics). The urgency of this crisis differentiates it from that associated with evolution, although the two may be related, and might thereby be understood as leading to the evocations of Time in Section 'A'.
In Section 'P', the nature of this crisis receives its name, Götterdämmerung. Ephraim's anxiety about the state of the "SCHOOLS" (in Section 'O') leads to a grisly note:
NO SOULS CAME FROM HIROSHIMA U KNOW
EARTH WORE A STRANGE NEW ZONE OF ENERGY
Caused by? SMASHED ATOMS OF THE DEAD MY DEARS. ('P')
No wonder then that Patrons are often "DUMB WITH APPREHENSION" ('Q'). In the context of the Section, we can see that Ephraim is trying to warn, perhaps even trying to scare, the "Boys," but although the "SMASHED ATOMS" was "News that brought into play our deepest fears" ('P'), they continue to play…. Ephraim's rebuke takes, for they suddenly understand what their familiar spirit is talking about.
Wait—he couldn't be pretending YES
That when the flood ebbed, or the fire burned low,
Heaven, the world no longer at its feet,
Itself would up and vanish? EVEN SO
The "flood" we may well take as referring to the "FLOOD" ('Q'), the "fire" to "DEVOTION" ('Q'), and in this way we can see the relation between the two crises mentioned above. (pp. 95-7)
[A] kind of escape clause from the holocaust seems to be included, for among the few things that we learn of Ephraim's superiors is that they are "SOULS FROM B4 THE FLOOD B4 THE LEGENDARY/& BY THE WAY NUCLEAR IN ORIGIN/FIRE OF CHINA" ('P'). The latter part of this is eagerly seized upon, by the Gentleman Tempter:
New types, you mean, like phoenixes will fly
Up from our conflagration? How sci-fi! ('P')
The hopeful proposition does not follow from what Ephraim has said, and, more important, he makes no answer to it; the exclamation anticipates, and disarms, skepticism.
That all of this is not playful appears in the final interview with Ephraim, in June, 1974…. Here, too, despite the possibilities suggested by Ephraim's remarks in Section 'Q' that he is operating more or less on his own ("SO FEW UP HERE WISH TO THINK … I WANT TO DO MORE THAN RIDE & WEAR & WAIT"), the more awesome likelihood that his Intervention is, like that of Maya (see Section 'R'), sanctioned if not ordered by his superiors shows itself. (pp. 97-8)
None of the parties to this final call knows why the break was made, whether in anger or desperation or neither, but the very character of the corrections administered by Heaven's higher-ups testifies to a twilight of the gods. (p. 98)
A feel for the poem's movement will, as I have tried to suggest, convince the reader that there is something "drastic" about Section 'L', something in addition to its content—or anterior to it—that is in part imaged in the equally "drastic" displacement of Section 'U'. The energy or force represented in the remove at which Section 'U' is found might best be measured in mechanical terms, were the poem a machine. The strain, and mechanics would be useful here as well, endured by the intervening Sections finds its likeness in the reader's (at least this reader's) straining to make them out: not only is the line of thought difficult, individual lines and groups of lines have about them an opacity that distinguishes the writing in and of these Sections from that of those preceding and following them. May we not imagine, then, that the poet himself was straining? I think that we should like to know something the poet will not, in so many words, tell us—what the strain was.
The explanation that comes most readily to hand is that the poet was rushed. He tells us so, after all, in The Book of Ephraim's first Section, but that Section was ostensibly written five months before the "SCRIBE" gave him six months in which to finish his "WEORK." (p. 99)
[However, the theory] that one of the constraints under which the poet worked was time, specifically the time dealt him by the SCRIBE,… ignores the fact that all work is accomplished under that universal constraint, and, more important, it figures necessity as a father instead of as a mother. The invention of the Sections cannot be accounted for in terms of a shortage of time, even if the choice of some of their raw material can be; neither, I should say, in general, nor in the case of that particular that seems to be so prominent, the displacement of Section 'U' and its replacement by Section 'L', will appealing to time much help us to understand The Book of Ephraim. (pp. 100-01)
I take it … The The Book of Ephraim is of the genre spiritual biography, of the particular type "Confessions," and for all that it chronicles a love story and carries the elements of revelation …, what the poem is about—its meaning—is the conversion of the poet. (p. 101)
The difference between JM as he is represented in the poem's early Sections and the poet as we find him on the Accademia Bridge, in Section 'V', does not lack for other images in the poem. For example, the difference may be that as between a younger and an older man. We feel about the younger man his freedom and his power; about the older, definition of his freedom and severe limitation of his power. (p. 102)
Prior to The Book of Ephraim, the fullest representation of an unregenerate JM is to be found in a poem called "Voices from the Other World," first printed in 1957 by the New Yorker…. The date will be important in permitting the reader to hear directly from that period which is recreated, after more than a decade and one half, in The Book of Ephraim; but it should also be noted that the lack of subsequent treatment of the material, prior that is to The Book of Ephraim, might itself be thought an image of unregeneracy…. [The] undertaking of [The Book of Ephraim constitutes a] powerful change of heart—from "nonchalance" [of the earlier poem] to "commitment."
When in Section 'I' of The Book of Ephraim, the poet says of "Ephraim's revelations—we had them/For comfort, thrills and chills, 'material'," we can see from "Voices from the Other World" just what he means; and the nonchalance mentioned in the lyric links up with the Hymn to Nonchalance that concludes Section 'I', although by now I suppose that the importance of its past tense as well as its situation (leading to or provoking the infernal Section 'J' and the ominous Section 'K') will be plain. But where the nonchalance is declared in "Voices from the Other World," it is argued in Section 'I' as though it is in need of justification: the difference consists in, so to put it, unregeneracy and a representation of his former self by a convert. (pp. 103-05)
With the assistance of "Voices from the Other World," then, we can now characterize the voice of that younger man as we have it in The Book of Ephraim—it is Brünnhilde's.
It is a voice much chastened by the time we hear it in The Book of Ephraim, but that it is the voice of Brünnhilde—whom her creator made "spurn/Heaven's own plea" and "ecstatically cling/To death-divining love" ('W')—we can be sure from the lyric's evidence. Even in "Voices from the Other World," however, the "commitment" the Heavens clamor for is not gainsaid: it is postponed.
That the "commitment" had been made by the poet before he began composition of The Book of Ephraim we can tell from the Gentleman Tempter's refined version of the unregenerate self, but just when the change of heart took place is difficult to know. (p. 106)
Whatever the poet had in mind for his poem in January, 1974, whatever it was to have been, was changed by the break with Ephraim in June. How great the change was, though, I suppose we shall not be able to tell. The poet's "surprise" ('U') when he learns that what of the poem had been written by June (he specifically mentions Section 'K') was well received by his other worldly readership suggests that he was worried…. But that "surprise" was as nothing compared to the shock of what followed. For if, as might be conjectured, the poet had intended to write an however transmuted account of his conversion in The Book of Ephraim (conversion, that is, to belief in the reality of Ephraim and his revelation …), he suddenly found himself cut off from just that to which the poem would attest. Section 'L', then, and particularly its final part, will have to bear the weight of two "drastic" changes: one from skepticism to belief, the other from initiation to literal excommunication. In such a dreadful context, the strain of the Sections that follow 'L' will be the poet's trying to understand why. His answer, at least in part, is to be found in the equally dreadful aspect of Ephraim's revelation that Sections 'O' and 'P' contain—Heaven's desperation. If the poet's "commitment" in The Book of Ephraim had been to some image of his conversion, the poem now holds as well an image of his state. JM is indeed a new man in Section 'V'—a man twice changed, a man exalted and humbled. (p. 107)
In Section 'X', the poetic line varies to an eleven-syllable, non-metrical measure. The feminine endings, which is how we first feel the line, we associate with the Section's introduction of the poet's mother ("she's here/Throughout, the breath drawn after every line"); then a climactic variation on the absence/presence paradox is rung, one that makes us feel that communication with the Spheres has, far from having ended, simply changed media—from the ouija board to poetry…. For how but in terms of inspiration are we to account for that image of the presence of the Other—even as it is absent …? Inspired, too, we may well believe the choice of poetry as the medium of revelation: for not only do "The twinklings of/Insight hurt or elude the naked eye" (the pun enforces the lesson), but "as to Composition, few had found/A cleaner use for power" ('W'). That last … answers the question the poet asks after Ephraim reveals the wages of an however metaphorical "DRUNKENNESS."
How to rid Earth, for Heaven's sake, of power
Without both turning to a funeral pyre? ('P')
Composition—even of his "Confessions"—is the best James Merrill can do, and the composition of The Book of Ephraim offers us, after all, an image of just that "DEVOTION" upon which, according to Ephraim, Heaven and Earth depend. (pp. 108-09)
Henry Sloss, "James Merrill's 'The Book of Ephraim'," (Part 2), in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1976, pp. 83-110.
James Merrill … had convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout. The publication of Divine Comedies … converts me, absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill. Technically, Merrill began as a master, but even Braving the Elements (1972) seemed to stay within a too-conscious control, as though Merrill were too fine an artist to accept ultimate risks. Divine Comedies is an astonishing return-of-the-repressed, an American book that dares everything in order to achieve what Emerson called the essential American trope of power: surprise. The book's eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill, but its apocalypse (a lesser word won't do) is a 100-page verse-tale, The Book of Ephraim, an occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats' A Vision, Stevens' ghostly The Owl in the Sarcophagus, and even some aspects of Proust. I don't know that The Book of Ephraim, at least after some dozen readings, can be overpraised, as nothing since the greatest writers of our century equals it in daemonic force. Merrill has written an uncanny romance of dallying with the spirit-world that moves with the dangerous persuasiveness of an excessive fiction, yet nevertheless interprets itself as though it had, for its author, proper as well as figurative meaning. Directly autobiographical, the poem creates an obsessive cosmos of mediums, singular reincarnations, and preternatural voices which uncomfortably have a social plausibility that is quite overwhelming. The penultimate section ends with a quietly sinister epiphany: "Young chameleon, I used to/Ask how on earth one got sufficiently/Imbued with otherness. And now I see." Otherness, or the overcoming of solipsism, henceforth for Merrill will be an occult journey, and the poetic results, should they equal or go beyond The Book of Ephraim, will make him the strangest, the most unnerving of all his country's great poets. (pp. 21-2)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.
["The Book of Ephraim"] can … be read as an account of the nature of poetic activity. [Like John Hollander in Reflections on Espionage], Merrill is the poet communicating with his source of inspiration, but unlike Hollander's vague and phantasmal poem, "Ephraim" develops a genuine personal history…. [It] is half game, like the play on the Ouija Board; at the same time it is intensely subjective…. The whole adventure with Ephraim is a process of self discovery. It makes a good story and contains the substance of a novel. (pp. 90-1)
Briefly, "The Book of Ephraim" is a tour de force. It is splendidly written. It is filled with moving, witty, funny, evocative lines. It has the richness of an exotic novel bound to the intensity of poetry. But it is not about what it seems to be about. Rather it is … a study of the individual artist's contest with his own talent and with his art. (p. 91)
John R. Reed, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1976 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1976–77.