From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976
The Changing Light at Sandover “Mirabell’s Books of Number,” “Scripts for the Pageant,” and a new coda, “The Higher Keys”
With the publication now of From the First Nine and The Changing Light at Sandover, one can better trace James Merrill’s development over the last thirty years, from the voyages and tours of the “international theme” in his earlier poems through the supernatural forays of the trilogy—always bearing in mind that in the dandified body of this poet’s works there lurks a giant’s strength, a giant, of course, with consummate tact and balance.
Merrill comes from a world of wealth and culture, le gratin; “exquisite” is the adjective most frequently applied to him—until recently, anyway. So the jolt of experience that could really hit another life, another milieu was, I think, a necessity. Privilege cushions the blows, limits the appetite, or refines it, often beyond all recognition. Being an American, Merrill was also a Puritan; by temperament he was an aesthete, perhaps a hedonist. Greece, then, with its countryside of “old ideas,” its “salt, wine, olive,” “Graces, Furies, Fates,” became the ideal place, beginning in the middle of the up-tight Fifties, for the “young chameleon” to set the contrary forces in motion. There what he’d later call the “dumbest”—that is, the earthy, the primitive—rose to the surface, while always being counseled (or opposed) by the “cleverest”—his Jamesian finesse, the “visiting mind” of the detached traveler. (“Prism” and “numbskull”: two of his favorite words.)
For Merrill the “realm of hazard” is the realm of art, but the creative juices always flow from an exotic “elsewhere.” The elongated syntax and filigree style, the deft modulations (Merrill’s vocal range, though obviously more studied than spontaneous, is remarkably varied, like the range of those singers who can be tenor or bass, employ light or dark inflections at will)—this idiom (at its strongest the most accomplished rhetoric, I believe, of any American poet since Crane) could only have worked once he’d broken past his upbringing and made a strategic use of the senses in a foreign country.
The best of the dramatic or comedic sketches in From the First Nine are not of chatty dowagers, whom he could just as easily have met back home, but of elegant roughnecks (“Kostas Tympakianákis,” “Manos Karastefanís,” “Strato in Plaster”)—the proverbial bel indifférent: “I knew the type: / Superb, male, raucous, unclean, Orthodox / Ikon of appetite feathered to the eyes / With the electric blue of days that will / Not come again”—a vitality and highhandedness, the allure of the lawless available to him only as an expatriate. And if a dowager makes an appearance, as in “Words for Maria,” there the decorative impulse achieves an appropriate resonance, with even the dancingmaster’s wit learning to suggest something of the reek of the human. And of course this particular dowager, Maria Mitsotáki, will later become one of the most memorable of the spectral figures inhabiting the trilogy.
Much of From the First Nine is autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical, but the hard data behind it are characteristically slight: the fantasying …