The most admiring reader is liable to let out a groan after reading thousands of lines of Wordsworth, Whitman, or Pound over a short period of time. What at onset is an original style and a work of genius ends up being a collection of new clichés. Despite such risk of exhaustion and disappointment, there’s really no better way to get to know a poet.
In James Merrill’s case, there is a surprise awaiting the reader already on the first page of his Collected Poems. One has every reason to expect, as is usually the case, that the youthful poems of any poet are bound to be fairly mediocre. It is absolutely amazing how many great poets started as seemingly talentless half-wits. Not James Merrill. First Poems, published in 1951 in an edition of only one hundred copies and written as early as 1945, exhibits many of the virtues of his mature style: a breathtaking ability to handle the most intricate forms and rhyme schemes, and to do so with apparent ease. The poems are ornate, dense, obscure, and very literary. Wallace Stevens is clearly a major influence, and so are the French symbolist poets Mallarmé and Baudelaire. Merrill’s early poems read like virtuoso performances by a prodigy who still hasn’t discovered that there is life outside literature. What seems to be of primary concern to this young poet is the creation of a sensibility in the process of refining a limited number of strategies within a long lyrical tradition. This poetry with no hint of America of the 1940s, one needs to be reminded, was written by an ex-GI. It’s as odd and improbable as seeing a performance of an opera at a country fair.
Still, despite the feeling of self-indulgent aestheticism, the opening poem in Collected Poems, “The Black Swan,” only slightly revised years later, is in my view one of the poet’s masterpieces. It is worth quoting in full:
Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
Though the black swan’s arched neck is like
A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
And the swan-song it sings
Is the huge silence of the swan.
Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
Transform, in time, time’s damage;
To less than a black plume, time’s grief.
Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrow’s lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
That doesn’t change but is
Always brilliant ice and air.
Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
Forever to cry aloud
In anguish: I love the black swan.
Merrill was then and continued to be the poet of a troubled childhood. He was the only child of Charles Edward Merrill, a founder of the highly successful brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and his second wife, Hellen Ingram, who came from a socially prominent family in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents divorced when he was thirteen years old. He grew up lonely, raised primarily by a French governess in an atmosphere of enormous wealth in New York, Palm Beach, and Southampton, Long Island. In “The Black Swan,” he reminds me of another solitary child, the one in Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” whom we discover at the end of the poem to be the originator of the fabulous voyages the poem has just described. He is the one floating a small paper boat in a cold puddle in the street.
That vulnerable, dreaming child, who relives a moment of terror or happiness, is the hero of many of Merrill’s poems. “I love the black swan,” the boy says. What he loves is the self-enclosed, beautiful world his imagination has constructed. “Poets convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting again,” Gaston Bache-lard wrote.1 Merrill certainly did that. What is remarkable to me about the poem is how the reality of that child’s solitude nevertheless breaks through the artifice. The poem is both poignant and prophetic. He will write many others about his childhood in search of a key to the secret of his identity and the sources of his poetic vision.
There’s a general agreement that with Water Street (1962) and succeeding volumes, Merrill’s poetry changes for the better. He leaves behind the aesthete’s aloofness of his earlier poetry, that impression of wanting to dazzle the reader with his quick wit and nothing terribly urgent at stake. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the period when the so-called confessional poetry was all the rage in this country. The poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, with their autobiographical bent and shameless self-concentration, were widely imitated. Merrill’s poems, too, begin to sound more personal, although he does not share Lowell’s need to blurt out dark secrets and appall the reader. He’s more reticent, more sneaky, and in his own way more terrifying. Here, for instance, is a section from the sequence “The Broken Home” in Nights and Days (1966), which describes a troubling and never to be forgotten encounter with his Medusa-like mother:
One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, head
Passionately lowered, led
The child I was to a shut door. Inside,
Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,
And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness—was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.
Merrill is both a poet of memory and an epicure of daily life. He speaks approvingly of Eugenio Montale’s poetry that is “surprisingly permeable by quite ordinary objects—ladles, hens, pianos, half-read letters.” “To me,” he continues, “he’s the twentieth-century nature poet.”2 This is true of Merrill himself. He’s the poet of intimate spaces as much as he is the poet of travel. A cozy room with all its furnishings carefully enumerated, where the comedy of manners unfolds between four walls, is the setting of many of his poems. People gossip, fall in and out of love, grow bored or introspective. It’s all very theatrical and very civilized. Then, as on the stage, something out of the ordinary happens. There’s a moment of revelation, a small epiphany that transforms the commonplace event:
CHARLES ON FIRE
Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances. And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false calms),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
“Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk.” No one but squared
The shoulders of his own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
“Say,” said the same young man, “in Paris, France,
They do it this way”—bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host’s full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface. In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Steward of spirits, Charles’s glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. “It couldn’t matter less,”
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.
There are a good many equally marvelous poems in Merrill’s middle period. I’ll mention a few that struck me as being even better than I remembered them: “Hôtel de l’Univers et Portugal,” “The Octopus,” “Doodler,” “The Urban Convalescence,” “A Vision of the Garden,” “Prism,” “For Proust,” “Nightgown,” “From the Cupola,” “Remora,” “Days of 1935,” “The Victor Dog,” and “Lost in Translation.” Merrill demands that he be read with extreme care. The poems’ pleasures lie in details where his impeccable ear for language, his huge vocabulary and play of wit are on display. He can spin a tale, keep the poem going through countless twists and turns of the plot, and hold us spellbound. That extraordinary facility can at times be irritating. One begins to suspect that he can make a poem out of any occasion, no matter how trivial. Merrill admitted that he never learned how to read newspapers, and indeed, his references to contemporary events are infrequent. Even his few New York poems are not particularly vivid for me. That is not where his heart is. His milieu is social, intimate, and domestic. In his fascination with manners throughout the Collected Poems, he is as much a satirist as he is a lyric poet.
The publication of The Book of Ephraim in Divine Comedies (1977), the first volume of the trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover, broadened his subject matter and attracted considerable attention. Ephraim was a spirit who communicated his revelations and those of other spirits to Merrill and his companion, David Jackson, by way of a Ouija board. What we have then is a poem that in addition to narrative and commentary in verse incorporates transcriptions of actual messages from the other world. The reception was mixed. There were those who like Harold Bloom spoke of “occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats’s A Vision, Stevens’s ghostly The Owl in the Sarcophagus, and even some aspects of Proust,” and those leery of candlelit séances with ghosts who simply did not know what to make of it all. That it is the most unusual poem ever written in America and that its intellectual ambitions are immense, there’s no doubt. The controversy regarding the poem has continued and is not about to die down with the publication of the novelist Alison Lurie’s memoir about Merrill and Jackson and their twenty-five years of involvement with the Ouija board.
Lurie and Merrill met in the summer of 1950 in Salzburg, Austria, while both were traveling in Europe, but their friendship really began in 1955, when Merrill took a position as a visiting writer at Amherst College, where Lurie’s husband was teaching. He arrived accompanied by his new friend David Jackson. Lurie describes Merrill as an elegantly handsome man with impeccable manners he had learned as a child from his mother and his governess. He knew French, German, Italian, modern and classical Greek, and Latin, and could make puns in several languages at once. As she says,