A Scattering of Salts
James Merrill, who died on February 6 of this year, gave his last volume the title A Scattering of Salts. In such a phrase there are overtones of tears, savors, and fragrances, yet with a clear implication, too, that these astringent crystals are scattered at intervals in the diffuse and oceanic medium of life. Merrill, for all the poignancy of his work, was a comic poet in the line of Pope and Byron and Auden; and from the very beginning of his long career, the poems he published combined, in sparkling ways, suffering and joy.
The son of the financier Charles E. Merrill of Merrill, Lynch, he spent his life after Lawrenceville and Amherst largely on his writing, teaching briefly now and then. Though he experimented with short plays and with novels—The Seraglio (1957) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965)—and wrote essays (collected in Recitative, 1986) and a memoir (A Different Person, 1993), his reputation rests chiefly on his poetry. In succession he published First Poems (1951), The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), Water Street (1962), Nights and Days (1966), The Fire Screen (1969), Braving the Elements (1972), Divine Comedies (1976), Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). The last three, with a coda added, were collected as a trilogy called The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). Subsequently there appeared Late Settings (1985) and The Inner Room (1988). Now, with A Scattering of Salts, twentieth-century American poetry marks the loss of a radiant and moving voice.
Merrill’s poems—his “chronicles of love and loss,” as he called them—are often autobiographical; they tell the story of a child of divorced parents who grew up to discover himself intelligent, talented, and homosexual. “When it came to sex,” he remarked in an interview, “I had to face it that the worst iniquity my parents (and many of my friends) could imagine was for me a blessed source of pleasure and security—as well as suffering, to be sure.” His readers followed his life in Greece, Stonington, Connecticut, and Key West; they encountered, with some disbelief, the Ouija-board experiments with his companion, David Jackson, that gave rise to an epic trilogy; they read elegies for one dead friend after another: Hans Lodeizen, Maria Mitsotáki, David Kalstone, Howard Moss. As Merrill scattered references to family, lovers, friends, and fellow poets through the poetry—to his mother and father, David Jackson, Peter Hooten, W. H. Auden, Robert Morse, Donald Keene—it was easy for readers to assume that they knew about his life as well as his art. In fact, the apparent candor of the poems was their most disarming quality. Knowing how much of any poet’s experience is altered, how much is unused, in his work, we can be sure that biography will eventually alter our perception of Merrill’s life. What biography cannot alter is the poetry, which takes on an independent existence as the poet’s life ends.
In the new volume, Merrill gives on almost every page the impression of looking…
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