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Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who became a prolific writer and 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.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915. He was the son of two artists, Owen Heathcote Merton, a New Zealander, and Ruth Jenkins Merton, an American. His mother died when he was six years old, and he spent his youth as something of a nomad, living alternately with his father in various Transatlantic settings and with his mother’s family on Long Island, New York. His father died in England when Thomas was fifteen.
His Transatlantic childhood meant that Merton was educated in some of the finest schools in the whole world. He attended the Lycee de Montauban in France and the Oakham School in England, and then spent a year at Clare College, Cambridge. He next went to 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.
Vow of Silence
Outwardly, Merton seemed destined for a successful career as a university teacher and scholar. Van Doren, for one, thought highly of his prospects, noting in retrospect that he had ”never known a mind more brilliant, more beautiful, more serious, more playful.” However, in 1941, several years after converting to Catholicism, Merton entered the Trappist monastery Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The Trappists require their members to take a vow of silence, which includes strict limitations, though not a complete ban, on writing.
Merton’s vocation involved complete isolation from the world. It required silence, austerity, and obedience to his superiors. Monastic life was a mixed experience for Merton—on the one hand, his contemplative side appreciated the deep and lasting silence it offered. But on the other, the artist in him felt the need to celebrate his solidarity with mankind, with the very people whom he had left behind upon entering the monastery. This ambivalence was to remain with him all of his life, and, while it was a source of some anxiety to Merton himself, it is one of the most identifiable features of his writing.
The conditions under which Merton wrote were remarkable. In the 1940s, life at Gethsemani was physically demanding. The monks slept on straw and boards in long dormitories and ate a poor diet. The monastery was marginally heated in the bitter Kentucky winters, and there was no relief in the torrid summers when the monks worked in the fields in mid-July wearing heavy robes (though they were eventually given permission to wear lighter clothes in the heat). Merton spent five years in the monastery living under these conditions.
Expanding Literary Output
Merton’s literary output was initially severely restricted by his monastic duties, but at the age of thirty-three he published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a bestseller 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. Though he was frequently frustrated by Trappist censorship, by the 1950s the Trappist leadership was allowing him to publish nearly anything he wished.
Various journals sought contributions from Merton throughout his later years. He often generously complied, sending work frequently to these and other more obscure publications. The pressure he felt to produce writing always brought about the same reaction in him—a desire for solitude, which in turn was followed by a flurry of writing activity and renewed contacts with the world around him.
The majority of his more than fifty books and 300 articles involve expository writing, even though Merton felt most comfortable writing poetry and journal entries. He seems to have had few people to talk to about literary matters, even when his monastic silence was somewhat relaxed in the 1950s and 1960s. He made up for this lack in being an energetic, if somewhat eclectic, reader and note taker, and by the 1960s, he had developed relationships with a number of writers and artists outside the monastery.
Concerned for the Outside World
During the 1950s and 1960s, Merton became increasingly concerned with political events and 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. Tragically, his activism and writings were cut short when Merton died as a result of accidental electrocution in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was attending an ecumenical conference.
Works in Literary Context
James Thomas Baker, one of Merton’s biographers, believed that the dichotomy of monk/writer in Merton’s personality was an essential ingredient in his writing. As Baker stated in Thomas Merton: Social Critic, ”There was…an oriental paradox about his life and thought, the paradox of a monk speaking to the world, which gave it the quality that was uniquely Merton, and any other career would have robbed his work of that quality.”
A Life of Contemplation
Nearly all of Merton’s major works were directly influenced by his monastic life. The restrictions placed upon the author, along with the lessons he learned leading a life of work and contemplation, informed the content of his writing. Among his best-known publications is his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which relates the events leading to his conversion to Catholicism and advocates a life of contemplation. The Seven Storey Mountain offers many examples of the way in which the monastic life seemed ideal for the sort of writing that Merton did. The interval between night and dawn, for example, a very active time for monks, was especially fruitful for writing, as Merton noted: ”After two or three hours of prayer your mind is saturated in peace and the richness of the liturgy. The dawn is breaking outside the cold windows. If it is warm, the birds are already beginning to sing. Whole blocks of imagery seem to crystallize out as if it were naturally in the silence and the peace, and the lines almost write themselves.” Another work that is a natural outgrowth of Merton’s monastic life is The Sign of Jonas (1953). This personal journal vividly depicts one five-year period in 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.
Coming to Terms with Developments in Poetry
While Merton’s early works focus largely on the development of a spiritual life, many of his later writings address secular questions and focus his thinking on questions of poetic construction. In these later writings, he employs a diverse range of formal and free verse techniques to tackle both religious and secular subjects. Early in his career, he had avoided the forms used by contemporary poets because he associated these with sterile experimentation. By the 1960s, however, he had convinced himself that the use of open forms, with their idiosyncratic variations in line, image, and rhythm, could be harnessed to carry the weight of his spiritual and secular themes. Cables to the Ace (1968) represented his first attempt to bring all of these elements together in a lyric/epic format that was to reach consummate expression in The Geography of Lograire (1969). The Geography of Lograire, Merton’s way of coming to terms with developments in American poetry, is widely considered a major poem in recent American writing.
Works in Critical Context
Merton’s early works were embraced by both readers and reviewers, in part, according to some critics, because his advocation of 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 his later, more political works 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 much scholarship on Merton’s works has yet to be conducted.
The Seven Storey Mountain
Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was an instant success. It sold 6,000 copies within the first month and nearly 300,000 copies the first year, and continues to attract readers year after year. If one accepts T.S. Eliot’s rather pragmatic definition of a “classic” as ”a work that stays in print,” then The Seven Storey Mountain has met the test for more than forty years. All the signs point to its continued popularity, as it has been consistently in print since its initial publication.
Critical acclaim for The Seven Storey Mountain was immediate upon its publication. In Catholic World, Catholic critic F. X. Connolly noted, ”The book is bracing in its realism, sincere, direct and challenging. . . . The Seven Storey Mountain is a prolonged prayer as well as a great book.” Editor George Shuster had similar praise for the book, as he wrote in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, ”The fervor of [Merton’s] progress to the monastery of Gethsemani is deeply moving. It is a difficult matter to write about, but I think there will be many who, however alien the experience may remain to them personally, will put the narrative down with wonder and respect.” The autobiography similarly impressed critic George Miles, who noted in a Commonweal review that ”the book is written simply; the sensory images of boyhood are wonderful, and the incisive quality of his criticism, that tartness of his humor have not been sentimentalized by Merton’s entry into a monastery. . . . The Seven Storey Mountain is a book that deeply impresses the mind and the heart for days. It fills one with love and hope.”
Although well known as a poet during his early years as a Trappist monk, Merton did not publish his first book of poetry, Thirty Poems, until 1944. The poems in this collection were written both before and after Merton’s monastery experience. According to James Thomas Baker, author of Thomas Merton: Social Critic, Merton felt that the poetry which he wrote at that time was the best of his career.” The book received favorable reviews, including one written by poet Robert Lowell for Commonweal, in which the critic called Merton easily the most promising of our American Catholic poets.”
Merton’s next book of poems, A Man in the Divided Sea (1946), included all of the poems from Thirty Poems plus fifty-six more written during the same period. It was equally praised by critics. John Nerber, reviewing the book in Poetry, called it brilliant” and provocative,” adding, It is, without doubt, one of the important books of the year.” Poet Louise Bogan noted in the New Yorker that although Merton has not yet developed a real synthesis between his poetic gifts and his religious ones . . . the possibility of his becoming a religious poet of stature is evident.”
Despite the recognition that Merton has received for his religious writings and essays, the literary value of his poetry is still questioned. As artist and critic Richard Kostelanetz admitted in the New York Times: ”Merton’s poems are scarcely anthologized, and his name rarely appears in histories of American literature.” William Henry Shannon has been more critical of Merton’s literary skills, stating in Commonweal that Merton’s poetry consists of over a thousand pages,” that contain a fair amount of. . . mediocre or just plain bad” writing.
- Baker, James. Thomas Merton—Social Critic. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1971.
- Finley, James. Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria, 1978.
- Furlong, Monica. Merton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.
- Hart, Patrick, ed. The Message of Thomas Merton. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Studies, 1981.
- Kelly, Frederic J. Man Before God: Thomas Merton on Social Responsibility. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.
- Kramer, Victor. Thomas Merton. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
- Labrie, Ross. The Art of Thomas Merton. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1979.
- Malits, Elena. The Solitary Explorer: Thomas Merton’s Transforming Journey. New York: Harper&Row, 1980.
- Mclnery, Dennis Q. Thomas Merton, The Man and His Work. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Studies, 1974.
- Rice, Edward. The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton, An Entertainment. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.
- Shannon, William H. Thomas Merton’s Dark Path: The Inner Experience of a Contemplative. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981.
- Twomey, Gerald, ed. Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox. New York: Paulist, 1978.
- Wilkes, Paul, ed. Merton By Those Who Knew Him Best. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
- Woodcock, George, Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.
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