Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2484
Merton, Thomas 1915–1968
A French-born American Trappist monk, Merton was a poet and an essayist. His concerns were the very large and the very small—the world in crisis and the individual soul in turmoil. The Seven-Storey Mountain is his autobiography. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Merton's The Geography of Lograire] is the map of his imagination, and its scale is ambiguous, indefinable, and indefinite because it is in his mind and yet is a four-dimensioned chart of the world the poet has constructed, partly by constant observation of objective reality—the brute physical facts—and by study of books and memories, and partly also by means of the sheer transformational pressure of his gift. What emerges is a new language that projects his vision of life and death-in-life, and holy love: death known as it is built into our society in the form of police, undertakers, and guilt, and love as it comes through in the poet's abiding tender, wondrous, and, above all, intelligent voice: the language is never, even in prayer, sentimental or soft. It is, however, quite difficult to say in so many words what the poem is doing, which I take to be the first sign that we are in the presence of an important achievement in poetry.
To make a gross remark, one is struck by Merton's consummate ease in handling free, or open, forms, poetic prose, and even a sort of blank blank verse. As one reads it becomes clearer that the forms of American poetry, or verse per se, are being used as part of a larger method by a virtuoso, with the aim of representing, in terms of "geography," the things that have happened to men in different eras—that is, to ourselves and to other societies and civilizations—as if he were translating them all into our own American lingo. The effect is to digest their experience into ours, or even ours into theirs, which is what translation is….
Merton seems to have opened his mind like a gigantic radio network to map the geography of man. Whatever his personal form of belief, the chart he draws of the human world has mutually significant reference points that hardly need transformation formulas to express our own family's language: we all begin—perhaps almost all end—our lives as members of one cult, the rites of which vary only as our histories do, and, from the perspective of Lograire, histories fan out and fold again. Merton has not reduced us, however, to the level of the merely primitive cultus in his syncretic (and high-order) religious geography; he has instead entered us, our technologies, feathers and printed papers and plastic charms and all, into its larger life by means of wit, compassion, and a most profoundly disinterested understanding of what we are. Lograire is simply an astonishing work.
Jascha Kessler, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 2, 1970, pp. 34-5.
Merton was a compulsive writer: a poet as well as an interpreter of the Cistercian life, a sensitive observer of the tragedy of his times as well as a profound chronicler of the mystical traditions of East and West alike.
It was perhaps ironical that a man whose first widely known book was called Elected Silence , should have been so prodigal a writer, that the recluse should have been so deeply involved in the crises—of war and racial conflict, of human freedom and cultural anarchy—that marked his years as a monk. But it would be a superficial judgment on the man and on his vocation to...
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suppose that his life as a monk could lessen his compassion or limit his concern. On the contrary—and it was his undeviating message—the contemplative should be more, not less, involved than other men, though at a deeper level than that of overt action or of the politics that pass. For that, quite literally, is what compassion means….
If it is still too early to categorize Thomas Merton's achievement we can at least recognize a prophetic voice who in his lifetime appealed to so vast a number of people of such diversity of faith or apparent lack of it. He is likely to go on speaking to those who are attentive to the realities of the world that is theirs to serve and perhaps to sanctify.
"The Hermit's Vocation," in The Times Literary Supplement, (reproduced by permission), May 5, 1972, p. 527.
[Merton's] The Geography of Lograire should not be judged as a single long poem or even as a collection of poems. It is best appreciated as an imaginative commonplace book. In dreaming the world of Lograire Merton has borrowed liberally from his readings in comparative religion and cultural anthropology…. Describing his tactic as "an urbane structuralism", Merton juxtaposes verse and prose, quotations and creative writing, surrealism, journalism, and deadly respectable scholarship in a work whose structure mirrors the fragmentation of modern life. In its attempt to embody the diffuse and the phenomenal The Geography of Lograire shows the poetic impulse firmly in the grip of the media impulse.
John T. Irwin, in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 164-66.
In his last two books, completed shortly before his journey to Asia and death in Bangkok in 1968, Thomas Merton turned from the more conventional free verse style of his earlier poems to an irreverent antipoetic mixture of sense and apparent nonsense, of sincere protest and ironic satire, to convey his sense of the confusion, the violence, and the accelerating breakdown of modern civilization. In these testamentary works, Cables to the Ace (1968) and The Geography of Lograire (1969), Merton also assumes the role of epic or culture poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams….
The full force of Merton's satire is directed against a conformist, materialistic society in which the exploitation and abuse of language have resulted in its breakdown as a medium of communication and a cultural bond. Merton uses a fragmented and largely inconsecutive language, rich in irony and absurdity, and echoing, through frequent parodies, the false voices of the advertisers, the politicians, and the exploiters of technology. There are also countervailing echoes of the voices of earlier writers to whom the poet is indebted. Conspicuous among these are James Joyce, as a pioneer in modern language experimentation, and William Blake, as both a savage critic of Philistine Britain and a prophet of a visionary New Jerusalem. In his own assumption of a latter-day prophet's role, Merton pessimistically forecasts the future from 1976 (the bicentennial of the American Revolution) to 2000, when "Too many creeps have won," and the doom of modern civilization is sealed…. Despite the apparent irreverence and irrationality of the "Cables to the Ace" (cryptic messages to God in a godless world), there is an underlying reasoned and informing viewpoint….
Lograire has something of the sound of a mythical Welsh kingdom. It also may have a link with logos, since the poem is a realm of words, and with logogram, since it is a complex verbal symbol. It is the country of the poet's mind and imagination, shaped by his awareness of the conditions of life in the larger world, not simply the world of Western tradition, but the world shared (inequitably) by all its peoples, on the four continents, the islands of the South Seas, and the remote fastnesses of the Arctic zone. Merton achieves this scope largely through the mingling of quotations from and allusions to many historical and anthropological sources. Together these form a mosaic of recurrent motifs which provide a metaphoric unity of apparently discrete details….
It is significant that Merton made "West" the final canto of his Geography of Lograire. For any writer rooted in an orthodox Christian or Romantic tradition the obvious and inevitable choice would seem to be "East."… Yet Merton, the Trappist monk, eschews the most facile solution of his problem by turning to the idea of salvation through mystical vision or divine revelation. One can only speculate upon his reasons, but they are probably shaped by a contemporary, post-modern Catholicism that rejects any solution to the problem of values that is not grounded in the existential confrontation and suffering of social reality. Whatever his motives, Merton has contributed in a unique way to the tradition of the modern epic by rejecting the backward orientation toward the past as the salvation of the present, in either a religious, an aesthetic, or a humanistic perspective, and by pointing instead to the impinging realities of the actual world as the place in which men and women must work out (or fail to work out) their social as well as personal salvation.
Walter Sutton, "Thomas Merton and the American Epic Tradition: The Last Poems," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 49-57.
Merton's first notion was to pluck whatever "Christian" gems he could out of the East that might fit into the Catholic theological structure. Later he abandoned this attempt and accepted Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam on their own equally valid terms—this, it must be emphasized, without compromising his own Christianity, which by now was being questioned by the more orthodox of his readers, who tended to put the issue on an either-or basis. However, Merton's Asian journals, which cover the last six weeks of his life, confirm rather than deny his very real attraction to Buddhism and his acceptance of it as a true religious experience. Again, without denying his Christianity.
Edward Rice, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 8, 1973, p. 13.
To a culture which knew nothing about it, Thomas Merton reluctantly came to realize that in order to make the whole idea of mystical experience believable, he had to write about himself. His literary career began with The Seven-Storey Mountain and ended with his journal written during his trip to the East. Begun on a jet leaving San Francisco in October, 1968, and concluding with a talk he gave on the day of his death, Thomas Merton's Asian Journal is the last chapter in the autobiography of this mid-century prophet….
He did not live to edit these rough notes, and there are times when they read like a stream-of-consciousness novel. First drafts of poems, dreams, meditations, accounts of mystical experiences, reading lists, advertisements, and quotes from Zen masters make the Journal as rich as it is uneven. The book also contains an appendix which gives the texts of the informal lectures he gave at the various conferences.
The Journal will not greatly enhance Merton's reputation as a writer. Rather, his long poems of the 'sixties, which are still largely unread, will go a long way towards establishing him as an important modern poet. Instead, the Journal tells us, with great clarity, what Merton's message was for modern man….
It is clear that Merton looked as deeply into the self as Sartre or Camus. But instead of fleeing, like them, from the terror of pure freedom, pure consciousness, he dared to stick it out in a state of nothingness; in this nothingness, this pure freedom, he found, like the great Eastern mystics, the Godhead—the Brahman which dwells within and is the individual Atman.
James York Glimm, "Asian Journal," in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1973, pp. 845-47.
What the hell was Thomas Merton doing way out in Bangkok, Thailand, when he died five years ago?…
[How] come he did not die peacefully in his monk's cell at his own abbey of Gethsemani? Is it true that he had grown tired of the attention and the many involvements thrust upon him in America, and that he had gone off to the Himalayas in the hope of finding more perfect solitude?…
Had he outgrown his Catholicism? Had 30 years of study and meditation convinced him that Buddhism was "the greater vehicle," the "Mahayana" of all the world religions? Ever since his death there has been talk about such possibilities; indeed, one publisher made money by suggesting on the dust-jacket of his book that Merton had made the pilgrimage, spiritual as well as geographical, from Rome to Bangkok….
Merton's Journal finally lays to rest all the rumors and theological scuttlebutt.
Did Merton yearn for a more contemplative life than his fame and his literary and social involvements allowed him in the eastern U.S.? Yes. Was he planning to settle down in a hermitage nestled in the Himalayas? No. He was, as a matter of fact, looking around for a quieter spot; but not, as it turned out, in Asia. He was interested in the possibility of Alaska—or even California….
Time and time again, the Christians he met throughout his trip suggested to Merton that India, Ceylon, Thailand, Indonesia, etc., needed his presence, needed the presence of another Christian contemplative community—of which he might be the appropriate founder. Always his reaction was the same: he felt no call to settle down permanently in Asia, either as a solitary contemplative, or as the founder of a new monastery.
What about the larger question of his Christian faith? Are we to conclude from his great interest in and respect for Eastern thought (Buddhism in particular), that, at the last, he had outgrown the parochial Jewish sect known as Christianity? He had, after all, embraced that faith 30 years ago—a long time, in our age, for spiritual and ideological loyalties to endure.
Merton does not dodge the question. He does not say that his faith is an easy matter. He does not feel that anyone's faith is an easy matter. Faith is more akin to swimming than to floating. New waves are forever bearing down upon you….
How did Merton come to understand the relationship between Christian contemplation and oriental mysticism?
He never addressed the question in a formal theological manner. Contemplatives are not so much logicians as they are 'experiencers.' Nevertheless, it is not too difficult to ascertain that he found a "middle way"—one which saved both the authenticity of the Eastern quest for the absolute, and the unique Way of the Nazarene. He did so, moreover, several years before the Second Vatican Council (adopting Karl Rahner's view of the problem), made it a commonplace to recognize the nobility of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc….
But he wanted to write of Zen, not as a Western theologian or philosopher, a critical, objective outsider; but as far as was possible, from the inside, as a practitioner….
Merton's is indeed a middle path, and as such will satisfy neither the spiritual imperialists nor the doctrinal relativists; neither the fundamentalists nor the syncretists….
Merton's middle way is a way of discrimination. Not everything Eastern is equally valuable for the spiritual development of a Western novice.
Michael Zeik, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 12, 1973, pp. 34-7.