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James Merrill was a lyrical and mystical poet often compared to W. H. Auden and William Butler Yeats. He is best known for his series of poems inspired by the messages of spirit guides he ostensibly received through the medium of a Ouija board. Merrill used formal poetic structures to blend autobiography with archetype and fable, creating a sense of inner tension and authenticity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wealth and Privilege
James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926. He was the son of Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill & Lynch, the stock brokerage company. Merrill’s childhood was one of wealth and privilege. He was educated at private schools where the written word and poetry were emphasized and also had a multi-lingual governess who taught him respect for languages. An appreciation for music, especially opera, came early to Merrill, and that dramatic form had a lasting influence on his poetry. Versification was encouraged in the Merrill household, so much so that in Merrill’s senior year at Lawrenceville School, his father privately published his son’s first book of poems.
Wealth also meant that Merrill did not have to earn his living from poetry and could live where he wanted as he wanted. Throughout his life, he traveled extensively through Europe and made homes in Stonington, Connecticut; Athens, Greece; and New York City. When his father died, Merrill established the Ingram Merrill Foundation to provide grants to writers and painters.
A Successful Poetry Career
Merrill attended Amherst College, where he continued to write poetry, though his studies were interrupted by a year in the infantry during World War II. Returning to Amherst, he published poetry in Poetry and the Kenyon Review and completed his thesis on Marcel Proust. Proust was fascinated with the everyday and with one’s own history, and his work had a lasting influence on Merrill’s later poetry.
At the beginning of his career Merrill’s poetry was recognized for its elegance and elaborately ornate presentation of artful objects and fanciful scenes. His later work, however, explored themes that were more personal and more historically based, and as a result, critics and readers began to take his writing more seriously. Merrill received the first of his two National Book Awards in 1967 for Nights and Days, which added to four early prizes from Poetry magazine (in 1947, 1949, 1951, and 1965).
Ephraim and the Ouija Board
Merrill and his long-time companion, David Jackson, began experimenting with a home-made Ouija board in 1955. Merrill claims to have made contact with a spirit guide, Ephraim, through these experiments. Although readers and scholars later questioned Merrill’s connection to Ephraim— did Merrill believe he was literally a spirit, or was Ephraim merely part of his literary style?—Ephraim was a central presence in and driving force behind Merrill’s poetry during the 1970s and 1980s. It was these experiences that lead Merrill to write his most successful and important works, Divine Comedies, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, and Mirabell: Books of Numbers, which won him his second National Book Award in 1979. The National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for The Changing Light at Sandover, a collection of Ephraim poems, and the Bobbit National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress in 1989 for The Inner Room (1988) rounded out the poet’s many other honors.
Until his death from a heart attack in Tucson, Arizona, in 1995, Merrill continued to produce poetry of note, as well as a memoir, A Different Person (1993), which reflected not only on his family, but on his homosexuality in relation to his writing.
Works in Literary Context
Time and Eros
With the publication of Fire Screen (1969) and Braving the Elements (1972), Merrill established in his poetry the themes of time and eros and the relationships between them. In this collection and others, Merrill presents love, with its erotic energies of masking and unmasking, as the arena where illusion and reality perform their ritual matings and combats.
Fusing Autobiography and Archetype
Merrill’s experimentation with a Ouija board allegedly put him in touch with a spirit guide, Ephraim, who led the poet to a mystical and sacred dialogue reminiscent of a blend of Yeats, Dante, Proust, Byron, and Auden. With these poems, collected in The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill became more than a lyric poet. He fused autobiography and archetype and created an epic and mythological approach to his regular life. As Andrew V. Ettin wrote in Perspective, ”The transformation of the natural, autobiographical, narrative events and tone into the magical, universal, sonorous, eternal is one of the principal characteristics of Merrill’s poetry, perhaps the main source of its splendid and moving qualities.” Unlike other autobiographical poets who use the poetry about their lives as a sort of confessional booth, Merrill turns his life into a larger-than-life myth. Helen Vendler wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Merrill’s poems ”are autobiographical without being ‘confessional’: they show none of that urgency to reveal the untellable or unspeakable that we associate with the poetry we call confessional’. …It is as though a curtain had been drawn aside, and we are permitted a glimpse of… a life that goes on unconscious of us, with the narrator so perfectly an actor in his own drama that his presence as narrator is rendered transparent, invisible.”
Works in Critical Context
Merrill was sometimes known in popular circles as the Ouija poet,” a dismissive title based on the skepticism of his Ephraim poems. He was always more interesting to scholarly readers, who considered him one of the twentieth century’s finest American poets. Brigitte Weeks wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Merrill’s artistic distinction is for the most part acknowledged, particularly in the academy, where he has already become part of the permanent canon. With his technical virtuosity and his metaphysical broodings, he is, like Wallace Stevens, an ideal seminar poet whose complex work lends itself to exhaustive explication.”
One of Merrill’s most noted accomplishments was his steady growth from gentility to vision, from formal elegance to prophecy and epic poetry. Once he left mere gentility behind and dealt with themes more dramatic and personal, his poetry took on a weight and importance that brought critical acclaim from all quarters.
Prior to the publication of Divine Comedies, Merrill was a well-received, if minor, poet. Critic Paul Christensen wrote that the early poetry would have assured Merrill a place in poetry as one of our better minor lyricists, one of our perfectionists.” But with the publication of Divine Comedies, according to Christensen, Suddenly Merrill has become our grand inquisitor, a poet of metaphysical humor and daring who blithely invents spirits of the Ouija board to confess to us the history of space, the chemical future of man, the heavenly wars at the dawn of being, the whereabouts of old geniuses now reincarnated as scientists and technicians. The whole madcap experiment wobbles and shuffles forward into a sort of greatness.”
Indeed, the publication of Divine Comedies led many critics to reevaluate Merrill’s stature as a poet. As literary critic Harold Bloom wrote in the New Republic, Merrill ”has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout. The publication of Divine Comedies. . . converts me, absolutely if belatedly.” Professor William Spiegelman described Divine Comedies as ”Merrill’s supreme fiction, a self-mythologizing within an epic program.” Spiegelman went on to praise Merrill for his masterful blending of classic styles into a truly original work: ”At last Merrill’s masters combine with graceful fluency in a confection entirely his own: the reader finds Proust’s social world, his analysis of the human heart and the artist’s growth; Dante’s encyclopedia of a vast universal organization; and Yeats’s spiritualism, for which the hints in the earlier volumes gave only small promise. Added to these are the offhand humor of Lord Byron and W. H. Auden, a Neoplatonic theory of reincarnation, a self-reflexiveness about the process of composition, and a virtual handbook of poetic technique.”
The Changing Light at Sandover
The sacred books collected in The Changing Light at Sandover, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982, are widely regarded as a major poetic statement, and helped formally cast Merrill as a unique sort of poet—a metaphysical writer who also employed both wit and charm. As Willard Spiegelman noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the completion of The Changing Light at Sandover ”earned [Merrill] his place as one of the most original and major poets of the twentieth century.”
- Bloom, Harold, ed. James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
- Howard, Richard. Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
- Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
- Kamp, Jim, ed. Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition. Chicago: St. James Press, 1994.
- Labrie, Ross. James Merrill. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
- Lehman, David and Charles Berger, eds. James Merrill: Essays in Criticism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.
- Moffett, Judith. James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry, revised edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
- Polito, Robert. A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
- Spiegelman, Willard. The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
- Yenser, Stephen. The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
- Brown, Ashley. ”An Interview with James Merrill.” Shenandoah (Summer 1968): 3-15.
- Buckley, Christopher. ”Exploring The Changing Light at Sandover: An Interview with James Merrill.” Twentieth Century Literature (1992): 415-435.
- Kalstone, David. ”The Poet: Private.” Saturday Review (December 2, 1972): 43-45.
- McClatchy, J. D. McClatchy. ”Lost Paradises.” Parnassus (Fall/Winter 1976): 305-320.
- Sheehan, Donald. ”An Interview with James Merrill.” Contemporary Literature (Winter 1968): 1-14.
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