The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

“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...

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