Lost in Translation

by James Merrill

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Critical Overview

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In an article for the New York Times Book Review on Scripts for the Pageant, Denis Donoghue determines that Merrill's "common style is a net of loose talk tightening to verse, a mode in which nearly anything can be said with grace." He finds a strong connection between W. H. Auden and Merrill, an association other scholars have noted as well, especially in his Divine Comedies.

Louis Simpson writes in his review of that collection, also in the New York Times Book Review: "Auden would have liked all this very much—he had small patience with simplicity, whether natural or assumed." Simpson likens the poems in Divine Comedies to "a kaleidoscope—a brightly colored pattern or scene twitching into another pattern." Deeming Merrill's writing "ingenious" and "witty," Simpson finds that "a society of cultivated readers might give [the poems] a high place" but acknowledges that Merrill would be too obscure for most. Still, he writes, "it is hardly the poet's fault that there are few readers of this kind of poetry."

Harold Bloom, in his review for the New Republic, claims, "James Merrill . . . has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout." Bloom insists that Divine Comedies "converts" him, "absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill.... The book's eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill."

One of the eight shorter poems in the collection is the celebrated "Lost in Translation." The poem was apparently also important to Merrill, who moved it to the final position in From the First Nine, 1946–1976, the reissued edition of his first nine volumes of poetry. As any poet knows, the words at the end of a line or a poem, or in this case a book, are placed there for special emphasis.

Echoing many a scholar's view of the poem's theme, Robert B. Shaw, in his article in the New York Times Book Review, states that Merrill "makes his most profound impression on the reader . . . as a connoisseur of loneliness: the loneliness of a child grown up and still in search of his absent parents." Willard Spiegelman, in his article on Merrill for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, calls the poem "impressive" and argues that it "pinpoints, more succinctly than any of Merrill's other short poems, the issues of loss and possession." He cites a quote from Robert Frost, who claimed that poetry "is what is lost in translation," and concludes, "Merrill's poem proves the adage wrong, since loss through translation is the motive for the poem itself."

Donoghue writes that Merrill "has always been sensitive to 'the golden things that go without saying,' and the things, equally golden, that have gone without saying until he has said them." It is this poetic craftsmanship that has prompted others, likeR. W. Flint in his article for the New York Times Book Review, to conclude that Merrill "has long since taken his place as one of the most accomplished satirists, wits and lyricists of the age."

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