James Merrill Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How does The Seraglio reflect the thematic concerns of James Merrill’s poetry?

Merrill has been criticized for the lack of substance in his poetry. Is this complaint valid?

How is the spiritual world used as a metaphor in The Changing Light at Sandover?

What does “Losing the Marbles” say about old age?

Merrill’s poetry is often described as difficult. Can a case be made that this difficulty is central to his method?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

James Merrill was known mainly as a poet, but he also produced novels, essays, and plays. Two years before his death, his memoir A Different Person: A Memoir appeared.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

James Merrill received awards such as the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1949, but he became a major voice in American poetry after 1967, when he won his first National Book Award for Nights and Days. His 1972 collection Braving the Elements won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and Divine Comedies won the Pulitzer Prize four years later. He was awarded another National Book Award (1979) for Mirabell. The Changing Light at Sandover, which combines Divine Comedies, Mirabell, and Scripts for the Pageant with a coda, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1983. In 1990, he received the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry for The Inner Room. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1971 and served as chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 1979 to 1995. Known as a lyric poet and recognized as a master of traditional poetic forms, Merrill stood among the first rank of poets in the United States.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Adams, Don. James Merrill’s Poetic Quest. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A comprehensive look at Merrill’s often difficult symbolism. Adams sees Merrill’s life as a “quest to save his life through his art” and considers specific works in this light. Provides a close reading of The Changing Light at Sandover.

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Harold Bloom’s introduction to this collection of essays is especially valuable. There is a chronology and an index.

Labrie, Ross. James Merrill. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Contains separate chapters on Merrill’s life and art, his plays, his fiction, and his poems of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a chapter that analyzes the Divine Comedies. Includes an interesting section on Merrill’s view of art.

Lurie, Alison. Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. New York: Viking, 2001. Lurie was a longtime friend of Merrill and Jackson, and this memoir provides an intimate view of the two. Lurie especially illuminates the interpersonal dynamics underlying the pair’s interest in the ouija board.

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Covers Merrill’s entire career, novels as well as poetry, and focuses on the poet’s preoccupation with the violence that threatens us in reality. Places the moral and religious themes found in The Changing Light at Sandover in context with the tradition of apocalyptic literature and with Merrill’s earlier poetry and prose.

Polito, Robert. A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Foreword by James Merrill. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Polito’s purpose is to make Merrill’s work more accessible by unifying, in an alphabetical reference, characters and events that appear in widely separated passages or under different names in the trilogy. This guide functions as an annotated index with cross-references to related terms, and also includes critical reaction and analysis.

Vendler, Helen. “James Merrill.” In Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. The section on Merrill provides informative commentary on Braving the Elements, Divine Comedies, and Mirabell: Books of Number.