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Merrill, James 1926–
Merrill is an American poet, novelist, and playwright. Throughout his distinguished career his poetry has grown more ambitious and his exploration of the human condition 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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1876
Divine Comedies is the watershed book of James Merrill's life as a poet. Characterized by resolution and reconciliation and by Proustian recall, it is his most important book. It displays Merrill at the peak of his lyrical and narrative powers; but it's a dense, strenuous book…. At the same time it is innocent of the charge of hermeticism, as his last two volumes were not. Difficult of access as these poems are, only a page or so is downright impossible; and for the first time Merrill has made available to readers, on the copyright page, sources of information outside his text…. Inevitably The Book of Ephraim overshadows [the] lesser Divine Comedies; but each of the long poems in Part I (and at least one of the three single-pagers that bracket and bisect them, a sweet-natured character sketch called Manos Karastefanís) is wonderful in its own way. All the long poems share a family resemblance as to form (loose pentameter, rhyme consistent or haphazard), ambition of scope, density of language, and intricacy of pattern.
To any reader familiar with Merrill's earlier work, held together by passion and problematical family relations at the vital center, the most inescapable resolutions of this new book are sexual and familial. (p. 40)
One of this poet's most remarkable and endearing qualities has always been his ability and willingness—save in extremis—to gather even the most dismal and disheartening situations of which his poems treat into a kind of unfaked, unforced "happy ending"; and in Divine Comedies too, in spite of his belief that the part of living he has cared about most is over for him, every poem resolves in the way of the pastoral elegy, and as et vitam venturi saeculi supersedes crucifixus est. (p. 41)
Though his poems never fake an affirmative conclusion, Merrill's first novel—The Seraglio (1957)—announced two resolutions prematurely, presenting as convictions what were in fact still wishful thinking. The novel's hero (and Merrill's persona), Francis Tanning, is shown in the moments of reconciling himself both with his parents and to the world's reality; yet books published years after The Seraglio proved repeatedly how much unresolved Oedipal tension remained. Merrill's poem on the Psyche-Eros myth, From the Cupola, for instance—the most hauntingly memorable lyrical statement in Nights and Days—describes winged Eros in many guises and Aphrodite as a terrifyingly maternal coconut palm…. Now, twenty years after the false resolution of The Seraglio and a decade after From the Cupola appeared in Poetry, comes Lost in Translation with a natural, believable reconciliation. This poem, one of the most nearly flawless in Divine Comedies, retells and mythologizes the Proustian episode of Merrill, as a child, putting together a puzzle with his nanny during "A summer without parents"; and it mentions in passing some puzzlepieces cut into recognizable shapes, each a symbol from Merrill's personal repertoire:
Witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass,
Even (surely not just in retrospect)
An inchling, innocently branching palm.
This is a "palm" in two senses, one allied to Urania's "rosy-fingered flexings", tiny, harmless, and one which reappears as the poem ends—inconsequentially as it may seem—unless that towering moonstruck other palm tree has stayed in the mind…. The violence and terror of that earlier palm is brought to diminutive harmlessness as the poem is brought—by intensifying the poetic elements of its language—to symphonic resolution.
We know from Braving the Elements that the "S" referred to at the end of Lost in Translation is a young Greek named Strato, the epicenter of Merrill's love life for a number of years; and another reason to call Divine Comedies a watershed book is that for the first time Merrill takes the reader's awareness of his homosexuality for granted, so that no love poem of his need ever again be weakened by a nameless, faceless, genderless "you" at its heart…. Yánnina and Lost in Translation, both because they deal with Merrill's family history and because they are nearly perfect poems judged by the highest standards of style, compression, thematic integration, risk, and adequate accessibility, are the most "important" in Part I; and they do convey the sense that Merrill has really made his necessary peace with [his] problematical memories at last…. The four [other poems], as much as these, are worked together with complete attention to every descriptive and linguistic detail, and to the levels and layers behind every word and phrase with more than one meaning, like "palm", above. And every one of these six would stand out, some more and some less brilliantly but all brilliantly enough to deserve the word, in a less ambitious collection.
McKane's Falls is the only long poem in Part I of emphatically greater lyrical than narrative strength, and the only one seriously concerned with circumstances memorable from an earlier book (Braving the Elements). It's a stunning piece, displaying Merrill at his purely stylistic best, than which there is no better…. McKane's Falls expresses a different sort of reconciliation: an explicit breakaway—supported by lines in other Divine Comedies poems—from Merrill's career-long commitment to the integrity of masks and surfaces…. (pp. 42-4)
The relative nature of Truth is twice insisted on in Divine Comedies, but never before has Merrill expressed a willingness to penetrate appearances in quest of any "inside story", since until this volume of passion's ebbing, truth was held to be the enemy of love. This is the first of his books in which light is viewed as a friendly force, or a companion asked to "See through me. See me through", or a woman seen as "Lovelier … without make-up", or full value given to the sort of love that transcends passion and outlasts it. The passage of time on a cosmic and/or personal scale occurs as a theme in every long poem…. Merrill is obviously preoccupied with the ravages of passing time, but his work has always been singularly free of self-pity…. (pp. 44-5)
The Will, a complex and fascinating surrealistic poem placed last in Part I, gathers together all the major themes explored in this first third of the book—family, time, passion and its lapse—withing the context of the great theme about to dominate the rest of it: Ephraim, Ouija, the Other World, the death which is sea-change and loss rather than annihilation. Is it possible, I wonder, for any reader unaware of Merrill's preference for saying serious things lightly to realize how serious he is about all this?… [No] poetry of Merrill's ever was less frivolous; for in it his marrow-deep mistrust of our world, the "real" world—with which both his novel and all his other books of verse were saturated—has finally given way. (p. 45)
Ephraim is no flimsy figment of Merrill's imagination, made up one dull day out of whole cloth; the poet has lived with the virtually unaltered idea of him for upwards of twenty years. A little simple collating shows how closely detail in The Book of Ephraim corresponds to detail in The Seraglio, where Francis and his Italian lover Marcello make contact with a spirit calling himself Meno. Save for a bit of portentous 1950's censorship (incest is substituted for homosexuality as the "perversion" ascribed to the Emperor Caligula) and truncation of the story-line, the discrepancies in cosmology, physical and biographical details ascribed to Meno/Ephraim, even transcriptions of dialogue, are minor. (pp. 46-7)
This very long poem's major theme, as announced in Section A, was to have been "an old, exalted one: / The incarnation and withdrawal of / A god." In fact, it's hard to tell to what extent the "god", Ephraim, as representative of the spirit world, withdraws, and to what extent he is gradually abandoned, dismissed, as Merrill's preference for the earthly world increases. In Section X Ephraim is still featured as "the latest / Recurrent figure out of mythology / To lend his young beauty to a living grave / In order that Earth bloom another season"; but there's no evidence to show he does this voluntarily. He wants to keep in touch; it's his mediums who give him no chance to.
The Book of Ephraim is only the newest and most persuasive treatment of Merrill's choosing-the-world theme…. [As far back as The Seraglio] Francis accepts his unwilling loss of the spirit world and manages somehow to believe in this one…. (p. 47)
Section Z, finally, describes the carton of Ephraim's transcripts in Stonington which now might as well be burned, for surely no one will ever read them again. In fact, the wish to burn them accords with Tiberius's wish for his own manuscript buried in its bronze box "UNDER PORPHYRY", and with Auden's for his box of papers in Oxford "that must QUICKLY BE / QUICKLY BURNED"…. Ephraim's transcripts are spared, though a door is shut upon them with a sound of finality. Life, itself, the Real, intervenes to save them, demonstrating again the other world's dependency upon the real world; for while debate is underway the phone, becoming a metaphorical lifeline as well as a literal one, interrupts:
So, do we burn the—Wait, the phone is ringing:
Bad connection; babble of distant talk;
No getting through. We must improve the line
In every sense, for life….
The reader is left believing that the affair with Ephraim, whether or not it has quite ended (that point is left unsettled), will never again seduce Merrill away from the life he means to improve the line—the telephone line, the line of verse—for. (pp. 50-1)
It is, finally, impossible to establish by the poem's own lights and terms whether or not the Other World is meant to be understood as objectively real. Its status is actually less important than this very ambiguity: the impossibility of proving that it is or isn't real, and the possibility that it may be just as real, or more real (as Merrill believed for a long time), than the world we live in. Merrill himself isn't sure. But "Ephraim, my dear, let's face it," he says. "If I fall / From a high building, its your name I'll call … / Let's face it: the Unconscious, after all…". The Unconscious, after all, just won't quite do. Merrill's choice for the world of "grim truths" must be understood not as a rational conclusion that Ephraim has been only a scion of his imagination and David Jackson's … or of their combined Unconsciouses …, but as an existential preference arrived at over many years without knowing even now whether the real world is any more real than the other world, without—finally—needing to know anything except that this world, our world, is the one he belongs to.
The recurrent command to BURN THE BOX—"demotic" for "Children while you can, let some last flame / Coat these walls, the lives you lived, relive them"—is the final consequence of Merrill's involvement with the other world. With Divine Comedies this command has been obeyed. In the long poem in which it is transcribed, as well as in all the lyrical narratives of Part I, the flame that burns is the flame not of passion but of memory. (p. 53)
Judith Moffett, "The Other World and the Real," in Poetry (© 1976 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1976, pp. 40-53.
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[Divine Comedies: Poems] is a verse not orphaned but fully parented in the flesh and the spirit, suckled, if not by Woolf, by a crowd of others. Yeats and Stevens, Kafka, Proust, Auden, Izak Dinesen, Brünnhilde, Tadzio, Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag—past presences, real and fictional, pervade [Merrill's] poetry. Highly seasoned and anything but anonymous, it is in some important sense serene, with the serenity of those who can still experience history, personal and public, as properly occasioning love and honor….
Fun, of course, is to be expected from comedies, but who today expects to realize expectations? Dante (the celestial mechanics of whose tour of the spheres Merrill will casually explain) certainly did not promise fun. Nevertheless the parallel Merrill's title asserts has more than the customary ironic validity. Dante is the most personal of poets, relying on those he had loved and honored to guide him through the universe, memorializing in rich human particularity the history, poetry, philosophy, the politics, the geography of his public and private world. Merrill's Comedies are similarly rooted. Like Dante, like Yeats too, Merrill makes his poetry out of events and people whose primary significance is that they have happened to him or that he has cared about them. It is a significance which, if the poet is good enough, is sufficient for us all…. Taking place over nearly twenty years (1955–74, Eisenhower to Watergate) the poem compasses the poet's own maturing and binds the generations. The huge cast of characters includes babies and adolescents as well as the youngish, the aging, the old, the dying, and the dead. Like Dante he secures his events in time. Dates are placed where we can find them, for it's by the calendar that we must grasp time's passage…. For Dante and Yeats personal experience leads beyond itself to, literally, another world, and Merrill's testimony, like theirs, is that that world is inherently personal. And for Merrill too the praise and interest of the other world is tempered by his unregenerate attachment to the things of this one. (p. 181)
[Merrill offers] persons and places and events perceived through the affections and rendered in orders and textures of language which affirm their value for the poet, and so for us. In this as in other ways Merrill has chosen to honor tradition…. Dante, like all the great narrative poets, lets us know clearly where he starts from, whom he proceeds with, what goes on—basic clarities which sustain us to attempt the incidental riddles and enjoy them. Merrill, though he's no more than Dante an easy poet, gives us all the clues we need to follow him through a poem of many riddles and many settings. Dante named every river in Italy. Merrill gives us Kandy, Kyoto, Kew, Geneva, Santa Fe, Venice, the papyrus swamps of the Nile, the South African veldt and, as exotic as any, Purgatory, Okla., where young Temerlin's educated chimp-child Miranda makes Merrill the sign for "happy" and charms him with a great open-jawed kiss…. Merrill, like Yeats and unlike Dante, has had to make his own myth. No wonder his narrative holds the attention; it's about reincarnation and communion with the cherished dead. (pp. 181-82)
Merrill's Comedies are well named. Where death is not accepted as final it is hard to sustain a sense of tragedy. But euphoria, too, passes. By the end of the poem Ephraim no longer comes, or the aging companions no longer summon him. Tempora mutantur; so do we. For all the frivolity, Merrill announced his theme at once in A: "the incarnation and withdrawal of a god."
We've modulated. Keys ever remoter
Lock our friend among the golden things that go
Without saying, the loves no longer called up
Keys of music, keys that secure treasure—the play of language is for pleasure. But these persistent puns are more—they are the poet's testimony to an ancient faith, the faith in the profound significances handed us by the adventitious and the random. It is not merely incidental that Merrill reveals himself as a virtuoso of trope and form, blank verse his common speech, developing sonnets as casually as the rest of us stammer, sliding imperceptibly into couplets, "loose talk tightening into verse." He can toss off a whole narrative section in sonnets; he casts his meeting with WENDELL P in supple terza rima, even ending, as Dante ended his canticles, with the word "stars."… But Merrill's faith is even more profoundly traditional: the faith that appearances and chance connections are upheld by correspondences no earthly poet has created. If our varied "languages"—his quotation marks—"bird-flight, // Hallucinogen, chorale, and horoscope" are all "facets of the universal gem," randomness is only apparent. Dante, whose terza rima mirrored the Trinity, would have found the idea wholly familiar; Renaissance cabalists would have seen nothing singular in making the letters of the alphabet an organizing principle. Merrill's virtuosity, while offering us all the traditional pleasures, remains a means, not an end. The end—even more profoundly traditional—is to mirror experienced truth….
In Q, a prose section of personally significant Quotations, Merrill for once transmits Ephraim's message raw and unversified: & NOW ABOUT DEVOTION IT IS I AM FORCED TO BELIEVE THE MAIN IMPETUS Indeed; as Dante learned, it moves the sun and the other stars. Or in Merrill's own exquisite image, what ties us to the dust is "the tough tendril / Of unquestioning love alone." We owe him our gratitude for risking his credentials as a modernist to show us that poetry still offers its old-fashioned pleasures. These poems, in language we can remember and possess, are testimony to an achieved web of values both transcendent and human. (p. 183)
Clara Claiborne Park, "Dante on Water Street," in The Nation (copyright 1977 The Nation Associates), February 12, 1977, pp. 181-83.
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Merrill has absorbed into verse many of the resources of daily conversation and prose. Still, there is a special strangeness and sometimes strain to Merrill's colloquial style, a taut alertness to the meanings which lurk in apparently casual words and phrases. We may find this in all good poets, but Merrill raises it to a habit of vigilance, a quickened control and poise, sometimes bravado, which he clearly trusts as a source of power. When Merrill uses an idiom, he turns it over curiously, as if prospecting for ore. (pp. 79-80)
Merrill's absorption of prose rhythms and colloquial idioms has something of the structuralist's curiosity behind it, an interest in casual observations which both veil and betray buried feelings. In "Up and Down" Mother and son are alone in a bank vault to inspect her safe-deposit box: "She opens it. Security. Will. Deed." The puns are telling. The wit is there to reveal patterns that vein a life: a precarious and double use of ordinary speech much like the quality Merrill admires in the poetry of the contemporary Italian Montale, some of whose work he has translated…. (p. 81)
The figures who appear and re-appear in Merrill's poems have more substance than the legendary heroines who were muses to the sonneteers, but they also have the same mesmerizing force, as he considers and reconsiders their shaping impact on his life. To reread Merrill's books since Water Street is to discover him preparing a stage whose objects and cast of characters become increasingly luminous. They become charged with symbolic meaning and release symbolic reverberations from otherwise ordinary narrative event. (pp. 81-2)
Much of Merrill's interest in narrative and everyday experience has been aimed at discovering the charges with which certain objects have become invested for him. He seems in his developed poetry to be asking the Freudian or the Proustian question: what animates certain scenes—and not others—for us? Over the years Merrill's poems have used the objects and stages of daily life, the arrangements of civilized behavior, almost as if he expected to waken sleeping presences and take by surprise the myths he lives by. (p. 83)
The conviction that "life was fiction in disguise" charges his poetry from the very start. Yet First Poems (1951) and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959) stand apart. These are books in which Merrill is continually interrogating presences as if they were on the edge of eternity. First Poems is a lonely and tantalizing collection, whose characteristic speaker is a solitary, often a child, attempting to decipher or translate elusive natural emblems: a shell, periwinkles, a peacock…. Many of these poems take up the matter of going beyond appearances so earnestly as to make First Poems seem "last" poems as well. Still, behind the conversational ease and realism of Merrill's subsequent books is the feeling which animates the very first poem of this one, "The Black Swan": the child's yearning to see the world symbolically. It haunts, informs and strengthens everything he writes.
By the time of The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace … the solitary speaker had become a world traveller. Yet that worldly grounding only licenses and confirms his questions about the solidity of appearances. He is less interested in what the traveller sees and more in his distanced way of seeing things. Japan, India, Holland, Greece: the journey only confirms him in the feelings of exile and strangeness expressed in First Poems. (pp. 83-4)
It is in Water Street that Merrill commits himself to his brand of autobiography and, with a title as specific as his previous had been general, turns his poetry toward a "local habitation and a name." The occasion of the book is moving to a new house. The closing poem of the book, "A Tenancy," settles him in Stonington, Connecticut, on the village street of the title, in the house which is to be a central presence in his work. The move confirms him in poetic directions he had already begun to follow: "If I am host at last / It is of little more than my own past. / May others be at home in it." Water Street opens with "An Urban Convalescence," a poem which dismantles a life in New York City where life is continually dismantling itself. Merrill's move is inseparable from the desire to stabilize memory, to draw poetry closer to autobiography, to explore his life, writing out of "the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent."
The domesticating impulse closes both "An Urban Convalescence" and "A Tenancy" and effectively frames the book. Imagined as dwelling places, the poems are at once new creations and dedications to what is durable, salvageable from the past. They emerge as signs of Merrill's deep and nourishing debt to Proust…. (pp. 84-5)
In his first two books Merrill had imagined the riddling objects and landscapes of nature and his travels as teasing him, just on the edge of releasing hidden meanings. They were stable, static, as if seen on a photographic negative or on an etcher's plate ("images of images … insights of the mind in sleep"). In Water Street the optical image is extended to motion-picture films and refined to accommodate mysteries interior and fleeting, stored in memory, only to be glimpsed in motion and discovered by activating the charged details of our own lives. (p. 86)
The particular houses Merrill writes about in later poems—however real, solidly located and furnished—are also imagined as vulnerable houses of the spirit. They are never mere settings. In the details he uses to conjure them up, there are always reminders of the particular kinds of exposure and emergency against which these domestic arrangements have been contrived. It is not simply that they displace confining dwellings of the past—the broken parental home, the narrow apartments of false starts. The very act of choosing what spaces, attributes, solid elements of the house to invoke becomes the action of the poem. A transparency of setting characterizes Merrill's writing, bleaching out distracting, merely accidental details and fixing most of his houses as improvised houses of survival and desire.
But in Water Street, the most powerful poems are those stressing the exposures against which Merrill's dwellings were to be devised. "An Urban Convalescence" is the best known of these poems, but "Childlessness" is probably the most important. "Childlessness" draws together narrative impulse and symbolic framework so violently that it seems not to fuse but confound them. Here, in a phantasmagoric landscape, houses "look blindly on"; the one glimmering light is not the poet's own…. No paraphrase could do justice to the uncomfortable marriage of poet and Nature which permeates this poem. Whether he is thinking of Nature as fostering the children he does not have or as infusing the visions of art, he remains battered between dream and nightmare. (pp. 89-90)
The transformations [in "Childlessness"] are hard to keep track of; the refusal to allow experience to settle is part of the poem's point…. The exotic colors of sunset, distilled from the storm, first clothe the poet, then burst along his limbs like buds. The image is meant to counter an earlier one: that nothing is planted in his garden (no natural blooms, like children). Then the buds become bombs, and the reward for being on target is a curious miniaturization of the world. A bombed metropolis is reassembled on sampans, a decimating version of the powers of art. The dream ends, as a stained dawn replaces the exotic dyes of sunset. Unlike those tropical shades, dawn's colors do not clothe him. For hours he cannot stand (both "bear" and "rise") to own the threadbare world—or to face its alternative: the cloak, a token for his parents who performed the expected service to nature. Their reward is also what devours them.
This is one of Merrill's most exposed poems, anticipated in the closing lines of "An Urban Convalescence." It offers rapid and conflicting perspectives against which to view the particulars of human feeling. Childlessness, guilt and suffering are set within the framework of nature's ample violence, its mysterious ecology, its occasionally exalting cyclical promise and power. Merrill has discovered a stage which will accommodate surrealistic effects released by a familiar domestic situation. The effect is like an opening out of space, a large corrective for moments of individual exposure. Merrill forces leaps from the "kitchen garden" to "really inhuman depths," the poetic gift he admired in Montale. But he also seems uncomfortable with these accesses of power. In "Childlessness" the technique is abrupt and insistent, a prey sometimes to strained self-justification or exaggerated guilt. It finds no way to separate the bareness and power of his own life from the punishment of his parents. And so the poem never really settles; at the close it comes to rest rather than resolution. Shuttling, adjusting perspectives constantly as we must to read this poem, we hear a mixture of self-accusation, self-delight and defiance. In the final lines the parents, consumed to the bone, are introduced with a baffling combination of bitterness, contrition and fierce confrontation with the way of the world. What happens violently in "Childlessness" happens with more meditative certainty later in his career. (pp. 92-3)
Nights and Days (1966), the next book, is the classic Merrill volume—jaunty, penetrating and secure. It contains some of his best poems, though later works were to be richer, more searching, high-flying, even shocking and relaxed. But several of the poems in Nights and Days are paradigms of how he was going to use autobiographical details in his poetry. Or to reverse it, in Merrill's own words, how the poet was to become a man "choosing the words he lives by." (p. 93)
From [the point of Nights and Days on] he seems entirely secure about the relation of his poems to autobiography and memory, to social surface and colloquial language. The security is reflected in pieces which begin or end with explicit references to writing…. The poet will be seen at his desk, looking back at an encounter or a crisis, or in the heat of events will glance forward to the time when he is alone and unpressured. [Merrill is committed] to capturing the immediate feel of experience, but often insistent that writing is part of that experience. (p. 96)
Merrill accepts the notions of poetic closure and the composed self—notions which many writers of autobiographical verse would suspect as artificial, false to the provisional nature of things. In many of Merrill's poems, the closing is also the point at which the poem opens out….
Merrill prefers poems in the first-person present which begin "with a veil drawn" ("a sublimation of the active voice or the indicative mood … a ritual effacement of the ego"). That attitude helps explain the presence of a short poem as prologue to each of his later books. In particular, "Nightgown," "Log" and "Kimono" are small ritual prefaces, overheard, propitiatory, modest, veiled overtures of poet to Muse. (p. 97)
[Certainly] the repeated motifs of aroused flames and cooling attune us to an intensity of involvement seemingly at odds with the almost deadpan wit and surface detachment of many of the poems. As readers we have to be aware of the verbal "layers" of a Merrill poem: his way of shadowing plots beneath the narrative surface and suggesting the complex involvement of the ego in any given experience. While the civilized storyteller takes us into his confidence, adjustments of time, temperature, light and background call attention to his own emotional activity and psychic experience of the poem.
"The Broken Home" shows that double movement at its clearest. The home is the one he grew up in, but also one we are given to feel he breaks within the poem. We must watch two actions at the same time. In one, the poem seems like a series of slides of the past, each a sonnet long, presenting the characters of his Oedipal tale and encounters between them. In the other action, the present tense of the poem, we watch the poet lighting his scenes. Behind these surfaces, changes of timing, brightness and scale render the scenes as transparencies. Or, to put it another way, the changes in his writing, the heightened temperature of involvement, coax out an inner experience. It is as if a poem required a kind of scrim among its resources, before or behind which action may be seen in new configurations as new beams of light are introduced. (pp. 99-100)
It may be a common—and mistrusted—device of poetic closure, Merrill's calling attention to the poet's role at the end of the poem. But in Nights and Days—and especially in the long major poems, "The Thousand and Second Night" and "From the Cupola"—attention to writing coincides with the notion of a house, a dwelling place, a point of repair at a particular moment, the desk, the typewriter. It is as if these poems fulfilled the promise of "An Urban Convalescence"—"To make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." The conventional ending seems … newly discovered, a psychological necessity.
The very title of this volume refers to the interpenetration and inseparability of the days of raw experience and the nights of imaginative absorption and recall. It is in those late night moments that the poems discover the poet at his desk and perform the ritual separations of poet from his poem. Such episodes, though they occur elsewhere in Merrill's work, seem to have their authentic emotional center in Nights and Days. The close of "The Thousand and Second Night" was almost an emblem of what poetry had come to mean for Merrill. Scheherazade survives by telling her nightly tales, but yearns for "that cold fountain which the flesh / Knows not." The bondage and the pleasure of her stories are expressed in her marriage to the Sultan, the day-time spirit whose joys lie "along that stony path the senses pave." It is he to whom things happen, she who "embroiders" what they mean. In the tenderness of their addresses to one another, the book lays its true and inner counterpoise to the deadlocked male and female voices of "The Broken Home" and to the guilty son of "Childlessness." (pp. 103-04)
The almost eternal twinning of the Sultan and Scheherazade is one of the ways Merrill has of showing how memory and autobiography ("real life") serve poetry's power to reveal the myths we live by. (p. 104)
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. (p. 105)
"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 … 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. (p. 106)
It is hard to disentangle the impulses which contribute to ["Mornings in a New House"]—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 "mother tongue"—the poet returns to her in a new way. The "new house" of this poem is interwoven with the house his mother had sewn, her mother's house, dwarfed by giant birds and flowery trees. The discovery of these entwined destinies "deep indoors" draws blood. There is something like the remorse of "Childlessness" in what happens. The resources of art are seen as self-protective, even vengeful, a miniaturization of human powers, like the moment in the earlier poem when the annihilated village—teeming generations in dwarfed versions—is loaded aboard sampans and set adrift. But in "Mornings in a New House" the experience is without guilt and is shared in its brittle complexity. Waves of warmth and anger carry him inward to an identification with the "tiny needlewoman" mother, to share the childish pleasure and fear which even then would shape her feelings for the child she would one day have. With "some faintest creaking shut of eyes" they both become toys in a larger pattern, at once foreshortened and part of their shared, terrifying but ungrudging humanity. I think what is most notable in this poem is that Merrill, however rueful and pained, has emerged from the erotic fire into a newly defined and felt natural perspective—one which becomes visible and palpable at length in many of the poems of his next book, Braving the Elements. (pp. 109-10)
We must pay special attention to [Merrill's] puns and … settings; they open alternative perspectives against which to read the time-bound and random incidents of daily life. In Braving the Elements (1972) and Divine Comedies (1976), he has become a master of this idiosyncratic method, something one might call—with apologies—symbolic autobiography, Merrill's way of making apparently ordinary detail transparent to deeper configurations. (p. 111)
[Merrill moves] toward larger and larger units of composition, not only long poems, but combinations of different forms, like the free juxtapositions of prose and more or less formal verse units in "The Thousand and Second Night" and "From the Cupola." The two sections of "Up and Down" limn out, together, an emotional landscape which neither of them could singly suggest.
On the surface it is a poem of contrasts: rising in a ski lift with a lover, descending into a bank vault with the mother; the ostensible freedom of one experience, while in the other, "palatial bronze gates shut like jaws." Yet the exhilaration of the ski lift—it begins in dramatic present tenses—is what is relegated finally to a cherished snapshot and to the past tense: "We gazed our little fills at boundlessness." The line almost bursts with its contradictions: unslaked appetite, or appetite only fulfilled and teased by "gazing our little fills."… "The Emerald," on the other hand, begins in brisk easy narrative pasts and moves toward a moment in the very present which the ski-lift section had forsaken. More important, whatever the surface contrasts between the two sections, there is an irresistible connection between the discoveries made by each. Or rather, the feelings of the opening poem enable the son to understand what happens to the mother in the closing poem. (pp. 113-14)
Some of the poems are pure ventriloquism. "The Black Mesa" speaks; so do "Banks of a Stream Where Creatures Bathe." They seem to embody a consensus of human voices, mythically inured to experience. History, the details of private lives—everything repeats itself in the long views these poems take. Hearing the poet take on these roles is like talking to survivors. (p. 116)
["The Book of Ephraim" is] full of the past, of luminous figures, the living and the dead, all of whom coexist in "The Book of Ephraim" by virtue of the attention Merrill has given them throughout his work and the value he has come to attach to them. The book includes figures resonant from other, earlier poems … as well as literary masters like Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden. (p. 120)
[This] poem allows Merrill to think of the past as nourishing—and without the sense of elegy which marks Lowell's History. Ephraim speaks to the narrator (section Q) of a community "WITHIN SIGHT OF & ALL CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER DEAD OR ALIVE NOW DO U UNDERSTAND WHAT HEAVEN IS IT IS THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING". Of these figures he says "IT IS EASY TO CALL THEM BRING THEM AS FIRES WITHIN SIGHT OF EACH OTHER ON HILLS". Metaphorically speaking, it is the kind of writing Merrill has done which makes many of these figures, finally, so innocently available to him, part of a network of affinities. "The Book of Ephraim" bears witness to a lifetime of continuing attention to and care for figures who have become resonant in his memory.
This poem, for example, returns with feeling ease to the memories of his father and his father's death—all the more remarkable when one thinks of Merrill's gallery of reactions to his father, running the gamut from satire in "The Broken Home" and in his novel The Seraglio to the guilt reflected in "Childlessness." In "The Book of Ephraim" they are spunky affectionate equals in the plenum of birth and decay. The freedom that vision allows bears fruit in "Yánnina," one of the independent shorter poems in Divine Comedies…. After a visit to Yánnina, capital of the last Turkish potentate in Greece, Ali Pasha, Merrill draws a portrait of the old despot, of the two women most notably attached to him—one a spiritual, one a fleshly love—and of the conflated gore and charm of Ali's life. What comes to matter in the poem is the intricate interweaving of present and past. Toward the end he links Ali's dual nature with his (Merrill's) own father's. More important all along, in a dialogue with a younger companion, he has been testing contradictions in his own nature which subtly identify him with the two vanished "fathers" in the "brave old world" of the poem.
"Yánnina" is a tribute to the sifting, amassing and reconciling powers of memory. It shows how the attitudes behind "The Book of Ephraim" help to refigure individual experience under the elongating pressures of time. Within "The Book of Ephraim" Merrill was to acknowledge a new sense of his rapport with Proust. (pp. 120-21)
Writing the poem—making Ephraim's panorama his own—has brought Merrill to the point where he feels he has to withdraw. "Let's be downstairs, leave all this, put the light out." The end of the poem is deliberately muted, using neutral domestic gestures to cover a certain fear about the light his imagination has cast. The quoted sentence is meant to sound more like whistling in the dark than like a buried echo of a resolute Othello.
"The Book of Ephraim" is a compendium of voices—individual and social, emulated, sometimes feared and discarded. It suggests ways in which the apparently random material of our lives and reading, history, gossip—the rational and irrational bombardments—are somehow absorbed and selected for our experience. Echoes and reechoes tease us with patterns whose existence we suspected but whose details were not yet clear. With its eddies and turns, its combination of tones, its range of high talk and low, "The Book of Ephraim" suggests how such patterns gather in a human life and assume the force of conviction. Merrill also suggests the price we pay for that knowledge. (pp. 124-25)
David Kalstone, "James Merrill: Transparent Things," in his Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery (copyright © 1977 by David Kalstone; used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 77-128.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
Ouija? Heavenly messengers? Their appearance will not surprise readers of Merrill's Divine Comedies (1976). In that work, the poet told of bizarre communications that he and his companion, David Jackson, had received over a 20-year period from "Ephraim"—a 1st-century Hellenistic Jew who claimed to have been a slave at the court of Tiberius….
Through him,… JM and DJ were able to contact dead friends, in particular two quasi-parental figures: W. H. Auden, Merrill's poetic mentor, and Maria Mitsotáki, whom Merrill once addressed as "the Muse of my offdays" (The Firescreen, 1969). Such a high comic romp was rather startling after the previous "chronicles of love and loss." Still, it was undeniable that in shaking the burdens of nostalgia and regret, the poet's voice deepened with impressive authority.
Now it turns out that "The Book of Ephraim" was merely a curtain-raiser for Mirabell's more solemn masque. Mysterious powers who "SPEAK FROM WITHIN THE ATOM" … have come to tell of the dangers of atomic energy. (p. 14)
[The] general movement of Mirabell manages to metamorphosize the ordinary, the trivial, the ridiculous into the sublime. Enter 741, a gentle bat, who conducts a seminar on the new religion of symbolic language. In the process, his four pupils—JM, DJ, Maria, and Wystan—teach him about human manners, which elevate us above the animal world, and he is transformed into a peacock. JM names him "Mirabell," after the romantic hero of Congreve's The Way of the World. To celebrate the newfound faith, there is a picnic of words—a love feast or agape, introduced by Auden, whose much-missed voice Merrill resurrects with uncanny fidelity….
Lest readers get the impression that Mirabell is chiefly devoted to the exposition of dubious metaphysics, I hasten to note that no summary can convey the variety or cohesion of its dramatic changes. A matter as frivolous as redecorating a room turns out to have cosmic significance. There are numberless subplots, each more delightful than the last. One involves the horrifying discovery by the late poet, Chester Kallman, that he is to be reborn as an African political leader; another relates how the spirit of Rimbaud ghostwrote The Waste Land. Akhnaton and his Queen Nefertiti, doomed by love and pride, provide what Merrill mockingly styles "Nuits de Cleopatrè." Instruction in science, history and theology, Arabian Nights stories, arguments and debates are all interwoven with "set pieces"—lyrical poems of exquisite musicality, reminiscent of the songs in Goethe's Faust. There is something for everyone, yet it all forms a unity, bonded like those atoms the poem celebrates.
Perhaps the most powerful enchantment of the book is the vividness and charm of its characters. The angels are radiantly otherworldly; the bats frighteningly so, except for the humane Mirabell….
What, then, of the "poems of science"? When his voices tell Merrill that "MAN'S TERMITE PALACE BEEHIVE ANTHILL PYRAMID JM IS LANGUAGE," they assume our ability to accept a metaphor that compares structures collectively built by social insects to human culture….
Nevertheless, the Muses of most poets today parade like the Madwoman of Chaillot, dressed in outmoded fashions of thought, ready to do single-handed battle against modernism. Mirabell, by contrast, is not afraid to tackle the problem head-on….
Merrill's celestial circus is a brilliant philosophy of metaphor—that "ritual of the new religion." At all times it is affirmed that there are no bats—spirits have no form. Maria explains that they are products of "the mind's eye," the imagination that must see an idea to conceive it. The poet's function is to translate the abstract into the vividly concrete. No reader of Mirabell will ever think of atoms quite the way he did before encountering the personifications of their forces. Yet after all the grotesques, arabesques, human interest, we become more sophisticated, and are prepared for the unadorned revelation of the angels.
James Merrill has created a poem as central to our generation as The Waste Land was to the one before us. (p. 15)
Phoebe Pettingell, "Voices from the Atom, "in The New Leader (© 1978 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 4, 1978, pp. 14-15.
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