James Merrill (1926-1995)James Merrill was one of the most significant poets of the latter half of the Twentieth Century. His life’s work comprises 16 books of poetry, two novels, a memoir and a book of essays. His work has won two National Book Awards (for Nights and Days and Mirabell), The Bollingen Prize (for Braving the Elements and the Pulitzer Prize (for Divine Comedies). His long narrative poem The Changing Light at Sandover won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 1986.
The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace. New York, Atheneum, 1959.Merrill’s fourth book of poems, published eight years after his third volume, First Poems (Knopf, 1951), marks his coming of age as a poet and his development of a highly personal and autobiographical mode in his poetry. Merrill wrote the poems in this volume during his twenties and they illuminate his travels in Europe during the Fifties. The poems are mostly highly formal and highly controlled. Yet, there is an aura of mystery surrounding them, underlying the highly attractive jewel-like surfaces. Of particular note is “Voices from the Other World,” Merrill’s first encounter with the Ouija board that was to become so important in his later poetry. Commenting on the title poem Merrill stated: “The poem still surprises me, as much by its clarification of what I was feeling, as by its foreknowledge of where I needed to go next, in my work.” Poet Mona Van Duyn had this to say about Merrill’s strategies:
His most consistent method of statement is the conceit, sometimes extended only through the sestet, sometimes running for fifty or more lines. The explicit end of the metaphor is developed into a full bodied narrative or anecdote, rich in perception, sharp with visual details, witty and delightful in itself. It may be “about” hayfever, an octopus, telephone-pad doodling, Greek statuary, or greenhouse plants, for this poet has ingratiating variety in his occasions for meaning.
Water Street. New York, Atheneum, 1962.Commenting about the first poem in this volume Merrill has said: “In ‘An Urban Convalescence” I first hit upon this sense of the self-reflexive side of the poem---that you can break up the argument in a very fruitful way. This is probably something learned from working in the theater where you write a line and you can have someone else contradict it. But you can also incorporate that within yourself as poet and stop a certain train of thought and break into something new or criticize what you’ve done up to that moment.” The poems in Water Street concentrate on the personal life, difficulties of relationships and poems of loss and grief.. There are poems of self possession, family romance and childhood. The book is autobiographical in the way of Proust, veiled and intimate at the same time. Water Street (number 107) is the street in Stonington where the poet lived apart of the year, since he purchased the house in 1956. The poems in Water Street are about process, as Merrill says: “I often begin not knowing what I want to say. When I’ve got it right, I know what it was I had wanted to say. Such a devious method.”
Nights and Days. New York, Atheneum, 1966.Awarded the National Book Award for Poetry in 1967, Nights and Days is anchored by two important long poems, “The Thousand and Second Night” and “From The Cupola,” both of which are about the nature of love and the pleasures of fantasy. A third important poem, “Days of 1964” is, with a nod to Cavafy, the narration of a love affair, and introduces the world of Athens, where Merrill and David Jackson had purchased a house to complement their Stonington, Connecticut home. Critic David Kalstone comments: “The very title of this volume refers to the interpenetration and inseparability of the days of raw experience and the nights of imaginative absorption and recall. It is in those late night moments that the poems discover the poet at his desk and perform the ritual separation s of poet from his poems.”
The Fire Screen. New York, Atheneum, 1969.Two long poems “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” and the tragicomic ballad “The Summer People,” have pride of place In Merrill’s seventh book The Fire Screen. Both of these poems are concerned with his life in Stonington, while almost all the rest of the shorter poems in the volume are “Athenian” in their setting. Almost all of the poems in the book are narratives and anecdotal, and are also shaped by the poets dialogue between solitude and friendship, and it is not always clear which side the poet comes down on. Yet, in these poems there is a also a constant back and forth between meaning and language. As poet and critic Stephen Yenser has commented: “Writer’s of Merrill’s kind—Mallarme, Valery, Ponge, Joyce, Nabokov, William Gass and even Derrida---have their languages drastically affected by their acute awareness of linguistic texture.” The poems in Fire Screen emphasize this texture while telling their stories.
Braving the Elements. New York, Atheneum, 1972.“Merrill is now 46, and it is in the last 10 years, with his last four books of poems, that he has become one of our indispensible poets, earning that final unquestioned role of a sibling in our family, so that it no longer matters what exactly he shows, since we take the latest news from his quarter as another entry in our common journal, we trust him, we accept wrong turnings as readily as right ones, certain that he knows his own way and will find it.” Helen Vendler in the New York Times , September 24, 1972.
Divine Comedies. New York, Atheneum, 1976.This volume contains the first long poem (“The Book of Ephraim”) that was to become his magnum opus “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Poet Louis Simpson comments on this:
Auden would have liked this book-in fact, he is mentioned in it as one of the spirits who, from the next world, act as “patrons” of the living. A spirit named Ephraim tells the narrator, J. M., and his friend, D. J., that spirits must return to earth repeatedly, as to a school, until they have worked through their ignorance. Then they obtain “peace from representation,” graduate to the lowest of “NINE STAGES/ Among the curates and the minor mages” and become patrons themselves. Ephraim was once a Greek Jew living in Asia Minor; in another incarnation he was a favorite of the Emperor Tiberius… J. M. and his friend arrive at their ideas of the afterlife by using a Ouija board; a teacup moves from one letter of the alphabet to another as Ephraim speaks. In this manner the universe is assembled-rather like a crossword puzzle. The method allows for surprises; at one point J. M. goes so far as to think that Ephraim may be the unconscious. There is nothing naïve about Merrill's view of his own creation. “Divine Comedies” reads like an extended conversation with the poet: there is hardly any conventional plot or drama; these supernatural carryings-on, however, afford a welcome quality of suspense.
Metamorphosis of 741. Pawlett, The Banyan Press, 1977.A portion of Mirabell, subtitled “Books of Number,” was published in the year before its book publication. In this excerpt Merrill and Jackson meet with the spirit Mirabell (or number 741) turned into a peacock.
Mirabell: Books of Number. New York, Athenuem, 1978.The second book in what was to become a trilogy (The Changing Light at Sandover), Mirabell introduces a whole host of both heavenly and hellish figures to the Ouija board inspired epic. Stephen Yenser has called it “a whole ramshackle, rattle-and claptrapping shebang of a machine---a unique loom, say, weaving a fabric with ‘Warp of physics, woof of whim,’ to borrow from ‘Dreams about Clothes.’” Merrill and his partner David Jackson are joined by the poet W. H. Auden and by Maria Mitsotaki as students of a variety of powers who teach their “courses” throughout the poem. The instructors in this case push Merrill to write poems of science and help build paradise on earth. One of these instructors, turned from a bat into a peacock, is 741, or Mirabell, who acts as a spirit guide through much of the volume.
Scripts for the Pageant. New York, Atheneum, 1980.The Third of the three major sections of The Changing Light of Sandover, Scripts for the Pageant is the longest of the three Books emphasizes the role of the Angels Michael, Emmanuel, Raphael and Gabriel. The Students, Merrill and David Jackson along with W. H. Auden and Maria Mitsotaki, are now alternately charmed, fearful and confused by their new instructors. Along the way we encounter a variety of episodes, including an elegy for a dead friend, a marvelous masque or entertainment and a dark and howling dark night of the soul. Drop ins for this section include Maria Callas, Robert Lowell and Vladimir Nabokov who make brief appearances. Scripts for the Pageant is a book about Unity in Diversity, yes and no, the positive and the negative and a book about duality and the transmigration of souls.
The Changing Light at Sandover. New York, Atheneum, 1982.
The Changing Light at Sandover. New York, Atheneum, 2006.
The conversations with the au-dela recall Yeats communications with the other world (by way of his telepathic wife), Victor Hugo’s séances, Blake’s prophetic books, Milton’s evocation of his “Celestial Patroness, who…dictated to me slumb’ring, or inspires/Easy my unpremeditated verse,” Dante’s redactions, and indeed the Homeric Muse. At the same time the poem gleams with mercurial, mundane wit, and just as its tone shifts from the apocalyptic through the meditative to the comic and back, so its normative blank verse gives way frequently to couplets, sonnets, terza rima, a villanelle, syllabics, a canzone, and other prosodic schemes, many of them set pieces.
Late Settings. New York, Atheneum, 1985.
The Inner Room. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
A Scattering of Salts. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.