The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

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“Swimming by Night” begins, not surprisingly, in the middle of things: “A light going out in the forehead/ Of the house by the ocean” signals to the reader that the poet is already in deep water. James Merrill is presumably swimming in the ocean off the coast of an island in Greece, where he spent nearly two decades living half of each year. He wrote a prose version of this poem in The (Diblos) Notebook (1965), in which Sandy, the protagonist in a novel—which Sandy is writing himself, in one of those nice double gestures that Merrill adores—explains that “What one can use is the poetry of the night, the lights running across black water toward us from the mainland.” Because the swimmer is “Without clothes, without caution,” the poem and the poet are deeply committed to some kind of self-discovery.

There is a double darkness of ocean and of night, a “warm black” in which the poet and the reader are plunged. With “Wait!” in the second line of the second stanza, the poem and the poet draw attention to the contrast of surface and depth, both in ocean and in understanding. The poet seems to say he is going to take this slowly, by degrees—“Where before/ Had been floating nothing, is a gradual body”—and that body is the poet’s own, as well as his craft.

It is important to know that Merrill enjoyed considerable freedom from certain real pressures of life. His father was an immensely wealthy stockbroker, who gave his son a large fortune before the boy was six. Infinite options surface in this poem as a kind of exotic and liberating chance to be out of one’s own element. Thus this lyric meditation, which is only three sentences long on the page, might represent the entire lexicon of Merrill’s imagination. In the middle of the poem, where the poet’s awareness of his body metamorphoses into the figurative “body” of his work, irony and characteristic playfulness produce lines that condense swimmer and poet as “Yours, risen from its tomb/ In your own mind.” The poet is self-conscious at his nakedness in the poem (and in every poem in Water Street, since he has doffed the cloak of elaborate conceits), where a “Haunting nimbleness” constantly threatens to expose how confidently he can and does move through the vastness of possibilities—creative, intellectual, athletic, and experiential.

It is obvious that “Swimming by Night” will not end in a toweling off on the sand. The last half of the poem, a single sentence floating up and down on the “evening’s alcohol,” turns into myth as Merrill evokes the sorcerer’s apprentice in his “master’s robe.” The poem does not so much conclude as burst into “the star running down his cheek.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

“Swimming by Night” is essentially lyric in design and character, a poem expressing subjective feeling and the personal emotions of the poet. In addition, this poem exemplifies the melodic quality of lyric poetry with quite broad repetition of initial sounds, or alliteration (“forehead,” “feints,” “fade,” “floating”) and slant-rhymed endings (“ocean” with “caution,” “feed” with “bed”). Merrill employs the useful technique of periphrasis, talking around a subject through diction, where stars are “feints of diamond” and one’s own reflection in water is “astral with phosphor.”

Like so many of the poems in Water Street “Swimming by Night” can be read as an extended metaphor. Although the emphasis on linguistic devices to supply the music as well as the meaning of poetry is quite traditional, Merrill’s work is unusual because he no longer preserves the conventional boundaries between art and life. Here Merrill, the powerful swimmer and poet, extracts a subtle implication from the ordinary situation of a swim. In “Swimming by Night” the boundary between the surface of the water and dissolution into it are completely erased as the poet becomes part of the ocean of life. The poet-observer and the poetic image become one and reflect each other as Merrill is reflected in the ocean’s water. In fact, the water in this swim helps to dissolve the usual limits between the real and the imaginary for Merrill, as though water were indeed the poet’s element as well as language.

There is a natural colloquial trace in the poem’s “Wait!” that, along with feminine line endings of one stressed and one unstressed syllable throughout the poem, lends a modern rhythm to Merrill’s obvious command of established patterns of versification. In some ways “Swimming by Night” is about figurative language, where “By this weak lamp/ The evening’s alcohol will feed” the role that language must play in any poem, especially in this one.

There is a rare opportunity with “Swimming by Night” to observe the way a prose fragment can be transformed by the techniques already familiar to the practiced poet—ellipsis and compression—into a poetic meditation. Juxtaposition of a prose passage from The (Diblos) Notebook reveals the exact images conjured in precisely the same words:To swim then: one’s limbs, stippled with phosphorescence, bringing to mind—to my mind—ectoplasm, the genie conjured up out of oneself, floating & sporting, performing all that’s asked of it before it merges at last into the dark chilled bulk of its master’s body stumbling over stones to sleep.

In the poem the swimmer becomes “astral with phosphor,” and “the genie chilling bids you limp/ Heavily over stones to bed” as the poet dissolves the usual limits between poetry and prose.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184

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