Thomas Merton Merton, Thomas (Vol. 83) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas Merton 1915–1968

French-born American poet, philosopher, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator.

For further information on Merton's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, and 34.

Merton was a Trappist monk who became a prolific writer and an influential social activist despite his vows of silence. His works are informed by the interplay between his contemplative life, his compassion for humanity, and his desire to work toward nonviolent solutions to world problems. A popular and critically acclaimed autobiographer, poet, and essayist, he was respected for his insight into twentieth-century social problems, his interpretations of the role of religion in modern society, and for helping to introduce Asian religions to the West.

Biographical Information

Merton was born in Prades, France, the son of two artists, both of whom died by the time Merton reached the age of sixteen. He was educated at the Lycée de Montauban in France and the Oakham School in England, and then spent a year at Clare College, Cambridge, before entering Columbia University in New York, where he studied English literature, earning a B.A. in 1938 and an M.A. in 1939. At Columbia he was strongly influenced by what became a lifelong friendship with the noted literary critic Mark Van Doren. Merton converted to Catholicism during the late 1930s, and he entered the Trappist monastery Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941. Because the Trappists require their members to take a vow of silence which includes strict limitations on writing, Merton's literary output was initially severely restricted by his monastic duties. However, he was soon given numerous writing assignments by his superiors, and although he was frequently frustrated by Trappist censorship, by the 1950s he was virtually free to publish whatever he wished. At age thirty-three he published his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which became a best-seller and made him a reluctant celebrity. He continued to receive expanded responsibilities in the monastery, and in 1955 he achieved the esteemed position of Master of Novices. During the 1950s and 1960s Merton became increasingly concerned with political events occurring in the outside world, and he began advocating awareness and activism rather than isolation as the proper response to the world's problems. Along with political events, Merton became increasingly interested in the study of other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism. Merton died as a result of accidental electrocution in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had been attending an ecumenical conference.

Major Works

Merton's oeuvre includes numerous works of autobiography, social criticism, poetry, and theology. Among his best-known works is his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain which relates the events leading to his conversion to Catholicism and advocates a life of contemplation. The Sign of Jonas (1953) is a personal journal that vividly depicts five years of Merton's life in the monastery, focusing on his evolving understanding of the meaning of his role as a monk and his attempt to reconcile the conflict between his religious and literary aspirations. While Merton's early works largely focus on the development of a spiritual life, many of his later writings address social issues, acknowledging the need for political activism. Seeds of Destruction (1964), for example, examines the role and responsibility of the monastic community in relation to such social problems as racism and the threat of nuclear war. Merton's poetry also addresses both religious and secular subjects and employs a diverse range of formal and free verse techniques. Notable among his most experimental works are Cables to the Ace; or, Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding (1968) and The Geography of Lograire (1969), both of which combine prose with poetry.

Critical Reception

Merton's early works were praised by both readers and reviewers, in part, according to some critics, because his advocation of the need for a radically different way of life appealed to many people in the years following the chaos of World War II. Although the shift in his writings from a focus on individual spirituality to social criticism generated mixed responses, some critics feel that his later works addressing political themes have yet to be realized as his most important contributions. Assessments of Merton's poetry are varied—some critics find the majority of his verse flawed while others consider him among the most important poets of his generation. Several critics have also observed that there is much scholarship on Merton's works yet to be conducted.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thirty Poems (poetry) 1944
A Man in the Divided Sea (poetry) 1946
Figures for an Apocalypse (poetry) 1948
The Seven Storey Mountain (autobiography) 1948; also published as Elected Silence: The Autobiography of Thomas Merton [revised edition], 1949
What Is Contemplation? (essays) 1948; [revised edition], 1981
Seeds of Contemplation (essays) 1949; also published as New Seeds of Contemplation [revised edition], 1962
The Tears of Blind Lions (poetry) 1949
Selected Poems of Thomas Merton (poetry) 1950
The Ascent to the Truth (essays) 1951
Bread in the Wilderness (essays) 1953
The Sign of Jonas (journal) 1953
No Man Is an Island (essays) 1955
The Living Bread (essays) 1956
Praying the Psalms (essays) 1956; also published as The Psalms Are Our Prayer, 1957; also published as Thomas Merton on the Psalms, 1970
The Silent Life (essays) 1957
The Tower of Babel (drama) 1957
Thoughts in Solitude (essays) 1958
The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton (journal) 1959
Disputed Questions (essays) 1960
Spiritual Direction and Meditation (essays) 1960
The New Man (essays) 1962
Emblems of a Season of Fury (poetry) 1963
Life and Holiness (essays) 1963
Seeds of Destruction (essays) 1964; also published as Redeeming the Time [abridged edition], 1966
Seasons of Celebration (essays) 1965; also published as Meditations on Liturgy, 1976
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (journal) 1966
Mystics and Zen Masters (essays) 1967
Cables to the Ace; or, Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding (poetry) 1968
Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (essays) 1968
Landscape, Prophet and Wild-Dog (poetry) 1968
Zen and the Birds of Appetite (essays) 1968
The Climate of Monastic Prayer (essays) 1969; also published as Contemplative Prayer, 1969
The Geography of Lograire (poetry) 1969
Three Essays (essays) 1969
Opening the Bible (essays) 1970
Contemplation in a World of Action (essays) 1971
Thomas Merton on Peace (essays) 1971; also published as The Nonviolent Alternative [revised edition], 1980
The Zen Revival (essays) 1971
Early Poems: 1940–42 (poetry) 1972
The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (journal) 1973
He Is Risen: Selections from Thomas Merton (poetry) 1975
Ishi Means Man: Essays on Native Americans (essays) 1976
Thomas Merton on Zen (essays) 1976
The Monastic Journey (essays) 1977
Love and Living (essays) 1979
Thomas Merton on St. Bernard (essays) 1980
The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (essays) 1981
Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook, May, 1968 (journal) 1982

Robert Lowell (review date 22 June 1945)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, Lowell is among the most highly respected American poets of his generation as well as an acclaimed translator, playwright, and critic. Below, he presents a mixed assessment of Merton's verse.]

Thomas Merton's career has been varied and spectacular: Cambridge University, the New Yorker and the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani. One can understand only too easily why the Protean Mr. Laughlin of the New Directions Press would be fascinated. I am sure that Catholics altogether like the idea of an "experimental" Trappist. But American Catholic culture is in a relatively receptive state of transition; in the arts, as in other things, we are taking our cue from France. Unfortunately, Merton's work has attracted almost no attentive criticism; the poet would appear to be more phenomenal than the poetry.

There is some justice in this neglect. Merton is a modest, not altogether satisfactory minor writer. But he is also, also, as far as my experience goes, easily the most promising of our American Catholic poets and, possibly, the most consequential Catholic poet to write in English since the death of Francis Thompson. Why the last forty years of the Catholic literary revival, which have seen the prose of Chesterton, Dawson and Waugh, have produced nothing as lasting as the light verses of Belloc is no doubt due to complex, partially intangible, causes. We must take what comes. What Merton writes is his own, subtle and intense. So small and genuine an achievement is worth consideration.

The purpose of this review is to point up what Merton has done; this involves an analysis of his limitations and faults. I shall quote to the extent of making a short anthology and hope that each quotation will be read over until it is understood. My comments are more or less footnotes.

Through every precinct of the wintry city
Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;
Herod's police
Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements
At the business about to be done.

Neither look back upon Thy starry country
Nor hear what rumors crowd across the dark
While blood runs down those holy walls,
Nor frame a childish blessing with Thy hand
Towards that fiery spiral of exulting souls!

Go, Child of God, upon the singing desert,
Where, with eyes of flame,
The roaming lion keeps Thy road from harm.
("The Flight into Egypt")

This is modern and traditional, graceful and quietly powerful. The first ten lines are probably the finest in the entire book. Note especially the stern imagery and rhetorical éclat of the first stanza; the subtle shift of rhythm in the second stanza, and the unity of symbol, meaning and sound in line 10. About the last three lines I am less certain. Too much depends on the word singing (presumably, the poet means that the desert is simple and alive, in contrast to the tortured, twisted fury of the town) which prepares for the sinless flame of the lion.

Because my will is simple as a window
And knows no pride of original earth,
It is my life to die, like glass, by light;
Slain in the strong rays of the bridegroom son….

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

George N. Shuster (review date 8 February 1953)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Shuster was an American journalist, nonfiction writer, and educator who was known by many as a modern interpreter of Roman Catholicism. In the following positive review of The Sign of Jonas, Shuster praises Merton's vivid and insightful depiction of life in a monastery.]

I am quite sure there has been no book like this. [The Sign of Jonas] is a diary kept during five years spent in a Trappist monastery by a young monk who, as everyone doubtless knows, can write unusually well. Of course many others have described their experiences as members of religious orders, but generally they have either been too holy to tell us much of general interest, or too human to care a great deal...

(The entire section is 1524 words.)

Aelred Graham (review date 13 May 1955)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Graham was an English Benedictine monk and professor of theology who studied both Western and Eastern philosophies. Below, he praises No Man Is an Island, discussing Merton's views on spirituality.]

To judge from the Catholic press, the Church's activity today is as vigorous as it has ever been. The theologians, within the framework of the dogmatic formularies, continue to elucidate divine revelation; and the ecclesiastics, like good policemen, control and direct the spiritual traffic. When, however, mid-twentieth century man wishes to discover what it is all about he turns, more likely than not, to the mystics.

This is what gives to the writing of Thomas Merton its...

(The entire section is 1920 words.)

Daniel J. Callahan (review date April 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Callahan is an American educator and the author of numerous books addressing theological and ethical issues in contemporary life. In the following review of Seeds of Destruction, he faults Merton's lack of sensitivity to the complexity of modern political and moral issues but affirms the importance of Merton's extreme views on morality.]

Thomas Merton has always occupied a special place in the American Catholic Church, though for different reasons at different times. His first acclaim came with his conversion, recorded in The Seven Storey Mountain. At that time, before ecumenism was much heard of, the convert was a special kind of hero, celebrated, publicized, and taken as...

(The entire section is 1932 words.)

Richard Kostelanetz (review date 5 February 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An American poet, essayist, short story writer, and novelist, Kostelanetz is noted in particular as a writer and supporter of contemporary avante-garde literature. In the following negative review of The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, he faults the stylistic aspects of Merton's poems, concluding that "what remains most interesting about Merton is not his art or his thought, but his life."]

A labor of publishing love, over a thousand pages in length, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton is a disappointing volume. Bad lines abound from the book's beginning, whose opening poem, "The Philosophers," begins: "As I lay sleeping in the park, / Buried in the earth, / Waiting for the...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Ross Labrie (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt from his study The Art of Thomas Merton, Labrie discusses Merton's views on the relationship between art, society, and religion.]

The nature of art and the relationship of the artist to society were a continuing interest of Merton's from the time of his M.A. thesis on William Blake, which turned out to be an informal and stimulating discussion of aesthetics. Antecedent to his curiosity about the nature of art was his consciousness of the artist's role in his society, a subject that he never tired of taking up. The reason was that he felt a profound intimacy between the roles of religion and art in relation to the vitality of the whole society. His notebooks...

(The entire section is 4739 words.)

Sister Thérèse Lentfoehr (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[An American poet who maintained a friendship with Merton, Lentfoehr is considered an authority on Merton's works. In the following excerpt from her study Words and Silence: On the Poetry of Thomas Merton, she discusses recurring social and religious themes in the poet's work.]

After considering in some detail the several collections of poetry in the Thomas Merton canon (excepting the two last works published in his lifetime, Cables to the Ace, and The Geography of Lograire), it would seem pertinent at this point to cross chronological barriers in order to focus on poems dealing with specific subject matters that occur with a certain frequency.

It is...

(The entire section is 5385 words.)

D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 23 May 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bruckner is an American journalist. Below, he provides a positive assessment of The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton.]

"All innocence is a matter of belief." Thomas Merton said, "For the poet there is no magic. There is only life in all its unpredictability and freedom." Merton was the unpredictable apostle of freedom, a monk in the grand tradition who would be at home with his great medieval predecessors, men who in their time also upset prelates and officious laymen. The movement from traditional Western monasticism in his early books to the magnificent fusion of Eastern and ancient Western mysticism of his last years is so impressive that his progress seems a leap. But [The Literary...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Victor A. Kramer (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Kramer is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from his study Thomas Merton he focuses on Merton's portrayal of contemporary man in Collected Poems.]

Collected Poems, a thousand-page volume, [includes new poems that were unpublished at the time of Merton's death.] These new poems do not exhibit startling changes in technique, yet there are several points to be noted; interesting is the fact that Merton continued to experiment with various techniques. Thus, while many of his final shorter poems are conventional, others, especially the prose-poems, are unusual. Two characteristics stand out about the lyrics in this final collection. Merton includes many...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Victor A. Kramer (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the following essay on The Sign of Jonas, originally presented in 1986 at a conference of Merton scholars, Kramer discusses Merton's struggle to reconcile the conflicts between his contemplative life and his aspirations as an artist.]

Thomas Merton's Journal The Sign of Jonas is a record of his growing awareness of what it means to be a monk, yet beyond that the text suggests what it means to be so while also a writer. Merton's journal records various attempts to minimize an awareness of his incipient vocation as a man of letters, but finally the journal becomes a documentation of that very awareness. This early journal, then, might be described as the history of a man of...

(The entire section is 5463 words.)

William H. Shannon (essay date 2 December 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Shannon is a Roman Catholic priest whose writings include The Church of Christ (1957) and The Response to Humanae Vitae (1970). In the following essay, he considers the value of Merton's oeuvre and the future reputation of his works, commenting that "Merton scholarship is still in its infancy or at best in adolescence."]

In considering the Merton literary output, one is amazed by the sheer quantity of it. That a monk, whose daily life was fairly rigorously regulated by a monastic routine that gave him only limited time for writing, should produce more than forty books and some sixty or more journals and reading notebooks, a thousand pages of poetry and upwards of 4,000 letters,...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Breit, Marquita, ed. Thomas Merton: A Bibliography.

Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974, 180 p.

A comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary materials on Merton's life and works.


Furlong, Monica. Merton: A Biography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980, 342 p.

Attempts to reconcile conflicting impressions of Merton's life: "[In Merton: A Biography] I have avoided the reverential approach, have tried to see him as the normal man he was…."


(The entire section is 420 words.)