James Merrill Merrill, James (Vol. 18) - Essay

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [Divine Comedies], where most of the poems have a narrative emphasis, Merrill succeeds in expressing his sensibility in a style deliberately invoking Scheherazade's tireless skein of talk…. His narrative forms in verse allow Merrill the waywardness, the distractions, the eddies of thought impossible in legends or in the spare nouveau roman, and enable the creation of both the long tale and of a new sort of lyric, triumphantly present here in two faultless poems, sure to be anthologized, "Lost in Translation" and "Yannina." (p. 211)

It is centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse's materials. The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that Heaven—the invisible sphere—is "the surround of the living," that the poet's paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined. (p. 213)

These "facets of the universal gem" shine throughout "The Book of Ephraim," which aims at being a poem of a thousand and one reflecting surfaces. The irregularities and accidents of life are summed up in the fiction of reincarnation which animates the book's theology: people pass in and out of life as the bodies in which their spirits are incarnated die of heart attacks, in fires, or by less violent means; spirits get placed in unsuitable bodies; and in the crowded world of the afterlife a constant influx of souls makes for an agitated scene. (p. 214)

Merrill's lines, in their exquisite tones, are often painful to read. Though they keep their beautiful poise on the brink of sense and feeling, and aim here at the autumnal, or the ironic, they keep echoes, undimmed, of the past: Merrill is not yet, and I think will never be, a poet free of sensuality, love, and youth, actual or remembered….

"The Book of Ephraim," for the most part, refuses the postures thought appropriate to age—stoicism, resignation, disbelief, patience, or cynicism. The mild conviviality of Merrill's unearthly symposium is boyish in its welcome to...

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Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Merrill's verse there is … something curiously old-fashioned—at least at first glance. In his wielding of poetic forms, Merrill is masterful…. Like his mentor Auden, Merrill can be so conversationally civilized in these forms that only half way through them does the reader suspect the strictness of the design. (pp. 9-10)

Here's another way in which Merrill is old-fashioned: he never courts obscurity…. These are books of ideas (as well as of feelings, visions, people and personages), and the ideas are comprehensible. Whereas Eliot's ideas about tradition or Pound's economic theories are stated in clear, no-nonsense formulations only in their essays, the poetry acting as a dramatization (sometimes a fragmentation) of the thought, Merrill's epics are as straightforward as Pope's Essays. Nor are the cultural or scientific allusions in Merrill obscure….

Merrill has more trust in the transcendental power of language than almost any other contemporary poet. He believes that words do convey messages, that a line is a mix-and-match ensemble pieced together out of reliable signifiers….

[For] readers to "get" Merrill they must believe (or pretend to believe) in conventional communication. Only so can they enjoy or even understand his strategies—his habit of breaking off a though once it's become obvious, his skillful manipulation of readers' sympathies, his direct address to the reader, his speculations about the "real" meanings that underlie the words of his informants, his unearthing of the wisdom stored up in puns (Merrill once said that the "collective unconscious of the race is the O.E.D.")—his complete faith, in short, in the transmitting and recuperative powers of language. The paradox that such realism is applied, in "Ephraim" and Mirabell, to the occult in no...

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Judith Moffett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Merrill's task in ordering, condensing, and presenting [a] welter of material, under the gun of urgency and haste, staggers the imagination; who else could have done what he did half so well? (pp. 14-15)

Whatever Mirabell's shortcomings may ultimately be judged to be, they are not metrical; Merrill's versification is the best there is….

If dark but benevolent powers spoke to you, asking for POEMS OF SCIENCE to save the world, what would you do? I wish I thought nobody would dismiss as a garrulous eccentricity a book that is in sober truth a marvel; one might as readily dismiss Dante, whose chief advantage was that the whole civilized western world believed in his vision without having shared it literally. For Dante the question of belief never arose; for Merrill it arises continually if allowed to. Merrill himself is healthy and sane, and he is nobody's fool. (p. 15)

[Certain] aspects of the matter of Mirabell are likely to strike readers as problematical…. By portraying intelligent poetic and musical gays as the evolutionary crème de la crème, Merrill makes himself vulnerable to charges of narcissism; the same could be said of passages in which heaven lavishes praise upon its spokesmen….

And every bit of this vulnerability must have been painfully obvious to Merrill himself. Yet what was he to do, short of doubting the entire experience to the point of abandoning it and the poem; and which of us, caught up in such an experience for such a purpose, would have done that? Or, if not rejecting commandment and covenant outright, should he have picked and chosen among the revelations like churchgoers of a certain stripe, tossing out anything that didn't please him or that would show himself and DJ in too favorable (hence too smug) a light and keeping the rest?

In fact, the poem is full of ideas and values "authenticated"—if that's the word—chiefly by their negation of ideas and values familiar from Merrill's entire oeuvre to this point. Could anyone have anticipated that a poet who had so consistently put down ideas and current affairs and praised the sensual life would ever find himself warning the world that mind and reason must defeat feeling if the greenhouse is to survive? Science isn't "his" kind of material ("Poems of Science? Ugh.") any more than the bat-centaur myth is "his" kind of myth, despite the intriguing and poetically effective coincidence of the bat-motif on carpet and wallpaper in the house in Stonington. It's easy to suppose that he may have dwelt so long on Akhnaton and Thebes because, in all the conglomeration of detail, with that opulent pageantry he could for a change feel really at home. Skeptical himself to the end, wishing to the end for an unequivocal feather of proof that this otherworldly seminar is something other than two decades and more of self-deception, Merrill has given on to us—rashly? courageously?—what has been given to him from somewhere, in a work ambitious in scope and execution beyond anything I know of in this...

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Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are passages of superb lyric intensity in [Mirabell]—occasionally Merrill gets it all together and does once again (but all too briefly) what he used to do so well. By far the greater portion of the volume, however, shows not stylish high jinks but uninspired plodding…. There is nothing even remotely musical about ninety percent of the lines in this book. (p. 705)

Aside from its selective summary of western thought, Mirabell is an intellectual sham. Among other things, Merrill claims to know something about modern physics; he knows less than you could pick up from The Times. What the volume most resembles in other art forms is the vapid credulity evinced in books and movies like The Amityville Horror. The poetry is as inartistic as the content is fatuous; the structure is haphazard; the lyricism virtually mute. I won't say that nobody could, but James Merrill certainly has not transfigured all this "junk." (p. 706)

Peter Stitt, "Book Reviews: 'Mirabell: Books of Number'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1979, by the University of Georgia), Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 704-06.

Clara Claiborne Park

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tentative in title, cannily ambiguous in structure and content, [Scripts for the Pageant] are no more ambiguous in spirit, no less committedly affirmative, than the Paradiso to which they are already being compared. (p. 532)

To have the poem now completed is like the reception of an immense, unhoped-for present: the long poem that it's been proved a hundred times over we can't expect in this age of anxiety, privatism, fragmentation and the loss of the confidence and will to speak any public language…. At its completion Merrill, like Prospero, breaks the mirror that has been since Ephraim the symbol of his poetic field, as well as what it was in actuality, the central focus of...

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Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If one uses] the usual domestic routines, illnesses, visits, weather, a problem with wallpaper, a failure of the telephone, you have enough, given Mr. Merrill's inventiveness, to make a poem of 80 or 90 pages….

His common style is a net of loose talk tightening to verse, a mode in which nearly anything can be said with grace….

"The Book of Ephraim" gave inspiration a new life by providing lines not only ghost-ridden but, at least in some measure, ghost-written.

With "Mirabell," something went wrong…. [The] real misfortune is that JM is instructed to write a poetry of Science…. Unfortunately, 741 does not warn JM of the risks attendant upon trying to out-Auden Auden…. [You] can't rival Auden by turning popular science into verse. (p. 11)

I am afraid "Scripts for the Pageant" persists in the portentousness and vanity of "Mirabell." Its subject is nothing less than the meaning of life, but the poem degrades the theme and makes a poor show of itself with camp silliness and giggling….

"Scripts for the Pageant" hasn't enough wind in its sails, chiefly because it relies upon the ripples of demeanor in the appalling absence of conviction….

True, there are good things in the poem, a few jewels available for the labor of sifting the rubble. The opening of the "Samos" section is beautiful, its splendor the direct consequence of the fact that the poet is speaking in his own voice. And again, 70 pages later, he writes wonderfully of the house in Athens. These passages are heart-breaking, as compelling as anythinng James Merrill has written since "Up and Down" in "Braving the Elements." But it is wretched to have to cross such a dismal terrain to reach them. (p. 20)

Denis Donoghue, "Scripts for the Pageant," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1980, pp. 11, 20.

Charles Berger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Scripts for the Pageant completes what may well be the most astonishing poem ever written by an American. There is no other word to describe James Merrill's trilogy…. Mirabell and Scripts raise so many profound questions about sacred poetry and the relation of the individual to the cosmos, that evading their doctrines would also entail ignoring the wisdom literature of Merrill's greatest predecessors—poets such as Dante, Homer, Milton, Blake.

But this makes Scripts for the Pageant sound much grimmer than it is. Actually, the poem reads as a swirl of voices, a choral symposium that sounds at times like heroic opera….

No brief review can do justice to the diverse plenitude of Scripts for the Pageant. The scope of Merrill's wit is breathtaking; it has become an intellectual force fusing together the unlikeliest of myths and concepts.

Charles Berger, "Poetic Spirits of the Modern Age," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), July 6, 1980, p. 3.