James Merrill Merrill, James (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Judith Moffett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)

Clara Claiborne Park

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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David Kalstone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Phoebe Pettingell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 681 words.)