No American poet since Marianne Moore has been so concerned with armoring as James Merrill. His early work is almost entirely a carefully crafted set of subterfuges to hide the true emotional self. As Judith Moffett has noted in her book James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry (1984), Merrill’s subject matter is most often passion or emotional involvement, and at first he used Auden’s device of addressing a nongendered “you” to conceal his homosexual loves. After 1973, when he decided to become more open about his emotional life, he dropped some of his protective techniques, but even in the later work there is perhaps more reticence than openness. Merrill’s parents were divorced when he was twelve, and his treatment of family themes was also armored in the earlier poems. The most important protective techniques Merrill uses involve humor, especially self-reflexive humor and irony; masking, in which a person or thing is hidden or disguised; and insistence upon the dual nature of everything. This last device is especially subtle, because if everything has a reverse nature, or carries within it contradictory characteristics, then the truth is hard to find and the maker can escape the reader’s detective eye in the turnings and twisting between dichotomies.
This volume, which replaces From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976(1982), includes 121 poems gathered in that volume and 21 poems fromLate Settings (1985). The very first poem, “The Black Swan,” is an exemplar of what is to come. Contradictions appear when the swan’s “black neck arches not unlike/ A question mark on the lake,” yet the child in the poem finds that “The swan outlaws all easy questioning.” The third stanza begins with “Illusion,” which is a concept that occurs repeatedly in Merrill’s work, and the fourth stanza begins with “Enchanter,” a character who under a number of different names and personas occurs throughout Merrill’s books.
In “The Broken Bowl,” the shards of glass reflect and refract and hallucinate, as do many of Merrill’s later mirrors. In “Variations: The Air Is Sweetest That a Thistle Guards,” Merrill presents an example of masking when Jane at the ball removes her mask at midnight. In “Transfigured Bird,” a child finds a bird’s egg, which should be a treasure, but when he turns it over, he discovers that “broken/ From the cold shell his chilly fingers cupped/ The claw of the dead bird, clutching air.…” What at first appeared to be a thing of promise and beauty turns out to have aspects of death and terror. This is a long narrative poem, the first in a series that continues throughout his work.
The first poems not only introduce Merrill’s major themes, they also display his lyric gifts and his mastery of form. He uses traditional sonnets, Spencerian stanzas, ballads, the canzone, terza rima, villanelles, and other forms, including some nonce forms of his own making. His most frequently used form is the envelope quatrain. He is equally adept at rhymes, using unobtrusive rhymes, sometimes slant rhymes, and sometimes rhyming a penultimate syllable with the last syllable in its sister rhyme line.
These themes, subjects, and forms continue to develop throughout the rest of Merrill’s volumes. The second book, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems (1959), includes another narrative poem, “Dream (Escape from the Sculpture Museum) and Waking.” This long poem is essentially a love lyric, one of many that are to come, and the first one in the book in which a lover is addressed. The previous poems about love have been theoretical. This section of collection includes, as well, another poem which is significant for the later work, “Voices from the Other World.” This poem introduces the teacup and the Ouija board which is to become so significant in the narrative trilogy collected in The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).
The Water Street (1962) selections include the first poems about Greece, where Merrill lived during half of the year for a number of seasons. Although Merrill has always used irony, it becomes more pronounced in this section.
Perhaps the best known of all Merrill’s shorter-than-book-length-narratives, “From the Cupola,” comes from Nights and Days (1966). A long, complex poem, it includes three different stories: The story of Eros and Psyche, based on the Greek myth; a contemporary situation in a New England village (probably Stonington, Connecticut, where Merrill had a home); and the story of the narrator, who is telling the stories of the two Psyches, sympathizing greatly with them. The modern Psyche, who knows her lover only through letters, is compelled to polish the panes of glass in the cupola of the house. The glass lets in sunlight, but this same light also makes the cupola insufferably hot. Merrill seldom neglects the opposite of any thing,...
(The entire section is 2013 words.)