Merton, Thomas (Vol. 11)
Merton, Thomas 1915–1968
Merton was a French-born American poet, philosopher, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator. Converting to Catholicism in the late 1930s, he entered the Trappist monastery and took the name of Father M. Louis. Here he led the austere but scholarly life of contemplation that is at the basis of his writings, which often mingle the principles of Christianity with the teachings of Zen. Merton is known for his stern social criticism as well as for his religious works. The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiographical best seller, brought him wide critical acclaim. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
James York Glimm
[Merton's] last poem, The Geography of Lograire, is, in his own words, a "wide angle mosaic" on the violence, intolerance and alienation of Western man.
In scope and form The Geography of Lograire owes much to the attempt at a modern American epic. Like Crane's The Bridge, it is structured on a compass motif, ranging from South to North, East to West, through past and present, mixing history with personal experience. Like Pound's Cantos, Lograire employs fantastic erudition, and incorporates many sources through quotations and editing. The reader is asked to enter the myths of other cultures—Mayan, Sioux, Moslem, Melanesian. As in Williams' Patterson, the reader must make the connections, must see and follow the broad implied themes which sustain and unify the swirling, shifting flow of the long poem. The fragmented form, fractured syntax, and multiple allusions make Lograire rough going, but the poem greatly increases Merton's importance as a contemporary poet. (p. 95)
In The Geography of Lograire Merton uses his outsider's perspective to analyze and attack the cancer within the Western myth. He gained aesthetic-moral distance on Western consciousness by immersing himself in what he called the "myth-dreams" of other cultures. The myth-dream of a people is their total grasp of reality: their myths, superstitions, knowledge, behavior—in short—their reality construct. Merton tried to see Western man through the eyes of the Sioux Indian, the Mayan, the Kanaka tribesman. His strategy in Lograire is to let the Sioux, Mayans and Melanesians describe the coming of the white man in their own terms. By quoting and rearranging primary sources Merton allows us to see ourselves as others have seen us, especially in crisis situations. He also leads us into the myth-dreams of other cultures forcing us to see how rich and full their...
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The writing in The Seven Storey Mountain seems to be multi-level. From the very first page, Merton is not merely writing about past events, persons, places and things, historically. Though very much a part of the narrative of the autobiography, this "natural" level is only one level. There is also the very important interpretive level of his writing which, for Merton, is essentially "spiritual." Merton writes the autobiography from his monastic perspective, from his new position as a monk. Thus, the past and its "naturalness" are interpreted "spiritually." And yet, neither level of writing can stand alone.
One result of this two-dimensional writing is that the reader of The Seven Storey Mountain may sense a peculiar incompleteness about the book: a lack of development, a kind of emptiness as if something is missing. So, for example, in the matter of Merton's writing vocation and his artistry, the reader is left in the dark. Because of Merton's spiritual interpretation, one does not really know how these qualities developed nor how important they were to Merton except on the spiritual level: gifts of God, and so forth. On the natural level, the day-to-day progression of the purely human dimensions of being a writer and being an artist is not fully developed.
On the other hand, however, this two-dimensional style allows the reader to see that Merton's odyssey was a spiritual one and that day-to-day "natural" existence involving people, places, things and events became increasingly unimportant and clearly secondary to his spiritual life. (p. 255)
[Predominant] is the craft of Merton the writer: the harsh adjectives, the many conjunctions, the repetition, the imagery, yet the starkness and the simplicity of the language. This is the language of a writer-turned-Catholic-turned-Trappist in the midst of a deep and intense process of reevaluation, conversion and re-adjustment. (p. 256)
Peter Kountz, "'The Seven Storey Mountain' of Thomas Merton," in Thought (copyright © 1974 by Fordham University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 49, No. 194 (September, 1974), pp. 250-67.
[Merton] came closest to being a buddhist poet, in the Chinese manner. The aura was the man; that is why, I think, his translations of Chuang are the best to be found. (p. 386)
The apocalyptic note is there in the poetry. By that I mean something more … than the terrified squeak of Chicken Little. Something more than powerlessness under the Bomb. It was an old notion—first, taking it all into account (this was a simple demand of truthfulness); then, the resolution, which in the final analysis was out of our hands (indeed, out of the hands of the bombers and bomb makers). But still, the outcome was not out of our hands; it also depended, if we could trust the bible, on the conviction, enterprise, courage of those who could speak up, stand somewhere….
Before most of us, poets or otherwise, realized what hung over us, he faced the scientific apocalypse in his Original Child Bomb (1962). It is a poem only in the most generous sense of the word, a kind of code, rather, an incantation, a pastiche of quotes, with here and there a cunningly dovetailed underplayed editorial. It concludes on a note of irony, prose flattened to earth, out of shape. (p. 389)
Daniel Berrigan, "The Seventy Times Seventy Seven Storey Mountain," in Cross Currents (copyright 1978 by Convergence, Inc.), Winter, 1977–78, pp. 385-93.
A problem with [My Argument With the Gestapo] is its static and unresolved quality, a problem which no one appears to have been more aware of than Merton himself. He admitted that there was in fact "no action" in the book…. There is surface movement throughout …, from the periphery of the war to its vortex, and from the present to the past—but the characters and the underlying situation remain essentially the same, whatever the superficial changes in nationality and locale. The purpose of this was apparently to underscore the moral similarity among the participants in the war, but the narrative effect is to create monotony. The complexity of the design, though, with its interweaving of not only past and present but real and unreal, dreamed and experienced, is stimulating. (p. 116)
[In the respect that the narrator accepts responsibility for the war,] the moral design strongly resembles that of The Waste Land.
The burden of such thoughts gives the narrator a taste for moral pronouncements which makes the novel rather sanctimonious at times…. At these points the novel tends to sink like a stone.
The deep thoughts tend to be more effective when they surface in the reader and when they emerge from the enactment of events than when they are infused into the novel by the narrator….
The narrator is effective … when, instead of moralizing, he attempts to come to terms with the whirlwind generated by the war. This is especially true of his impressions of London. His impressions are inevitably filled with the sense of his own awkward isolation, which is Byronic, wistful, and intractable, giving rise to some of the novel's most evocative moments…. (p. 117)
The dramatic pressure of the book arises from the fact that the war presents the narrator with the need to race against time. He plunges into the theater of the war in order to see the remnants of his youth before all of the evidence of his past is annihilated. (p. 118)
The unbridled Gothic atmosphere of My Argument With the Gestapo is one of the more successful aspects of the novel. London houses have the expression of "patients in a hospital, tired, wondering about themselves, and fearing to be roused from the uneasiness of their secret obsession with disease, by some new, objective alarm, some fresh pain."… (p. 120)
As in Eliot, the conflagration, which enacts a moral and religious as well as a political and historical process, is likened to Dante's...
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It is difficult … to examine adequately the exceptional qualities of Thomas Merton—because they are so many. If you tried to come up with the components that go into the making of a first-rate poet, your prototype might bear an uncanny resemblance to him. Put simply, Merton is one of our great poetic talents of this century. If anybody has doubts, the Collected Poems should quickly dispel them. Reading the work entire is like entering a unique world created just for the occasion. It is no hasty construction, but a self-sustaining environment in which the landscape has been filled out, in which the living and the dead are real. It is as if the poet had tasted and understood every essence that makes up the...
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