As a prose writer who published more than forty volumes of autobiography and theology, Thomas Merton is surprisingly homogenous, dealing with the same themes and subjects, presenting the same insights from slightly different perspectives. Even his books on Asian religions develop Eastern refinements on insights he had already developed from a Western point of view—inner peace and how to achieve it. His poetry, however, is amazingly diverse. In The Collected Poems, a volume of more than one thousand pages, echoes canbe heard of a widely diverse group of literary figures who attracted his interest: John Donne, Eliot, James Joyce, Richard Crashaw, Hopkins, Blake, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and the Provençal troubadours.
This list, however, is not an indication that Merton was a slavishly derivative poet; its diversity alone indicates that part of his creativity was his ability to assimilate so much material. However, he does more than assimilate; the vast difference between his first volume of verse, Thirty Poems, and his last, The Geography of Lograire, bespeaks a mind both open to new experiences and able to re-create itself poetically. Unlike many other poets, Merton has more than one thing to say, and much of the aesthetic enjoyment of reading his work is hearing him discover a voice suitable to his subjects.
Thirty Poems contains poems that Merton wrote during his secular years after his conversion to Roman Catholicism and during his first years as a novice at Gethsemani. The thirty short poems are composed in a lyric mode, mainly on religious themes. Some of them are travel poems (“Song for Our Lady of Cobre,” “Night Train,” “Aubade: Lake Erie”), while most reflect cessation of motion in the dual stability of place (“The Trappist Abbey: Matins”) and liturgy (“The Communion,” “The Holy Sacrament of the Altar”). The thirty poems chart a journey away from a dangerous world toward a monastic retreat—Merton’s physical and mental journey recorded in The Seven Storey Mountain—“The Flight into Egypt,” to borrow the title of one of them. Merton’s rejection of the world is evident in such poems as “Dirge for the Proud World,” “Lent in a Year of War,” and the poignant lament, “For My Brother: Reported Missing in Action, 1943.”
In Thirty Poems, as in much of Merton’s early poetry, Hopkins is a strong influence. Merton had even begun a doctoral thesis at Columbia on Hopkins—a project terminated by his monastic vocation. Not only does Merton owe much of his general religious imagery to Hopkins in Thirty Poems, but he also owes the title and subject matter of “The Blessed Virgin Compared to a Window” to Hopkins’s “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe.”
A Man in the Divided Sea
A Man in the Divided Sea, Merton’s second volume of poetry, written simultaneously with his first and dedicated to Mary, queen of poets, is a longer continuation of Thirty Poems. The themes of travel (“Tropics,” “Calypso’s Island,” “The Ohio River—Louisville”), rest (“A Letter to My Friends on Entering the Monastery,” “After the Night Office—Gethsemani Abbey,” “The Trappist Cemetery—Gethsemani”), and retreat from the world (“Poem: 1939,” “Dirge for a Town in France,” “Ode to the Present Century”) function in the same way. This longer, richer volume contains themes missing in the earlier one, notably the sacramental view of nature, in which the woods, fields, and hills around Merton’s Abbey become a mystical path running parallel to the liturgical one. Poems such as “April,” “Advent” (a poem about winter nights), and “Trappists, Working” (a poem about laboring in the fields) take their place in A Man in the Divided Sea beside poems such as “The Candlemas Procession” and “Song for the Blessed Sacrament.”
The depth of Merton’s reading also becomes evident in this volume, for there are poems on subjects from Greek myths, poetic treatments of several saints, and aubades in imitation of the Provençal troubadours. Merton, like many of his poetic generation, imitates Eliot: “April” and “Ash Wednesday” owe titles, imagery, and prosody to the Eliot of The Waste Land (1922). More important than these influences is that of the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets. Merton admits in his autobiography that Marvell’s rhymed octosyllabic couplets shaped, to a large extent, his early poetry, and one can still hear echoes of Marvell in A Man in the Divided Sea, even if Merton chose not to publish many of his rhymed poems. “An Invocation to St. Lucy” has its forerunner in a poem of Marvell’s greater predecessor, Donne (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”), and some of the sensual Catholic imagery found in Crashaw emerges in “The Biography.” “Transformation: For the Sacred Heart” owes its subject and some oddities of phrasing...
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