James Merrill Merrill, James (Vol. 13)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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.)

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...

(The entire section is 7,649 words.)