James Merrill
James Merrill; drawing by David Levine

Anyone who wants evidence that James Merrill has held on to his formidable gifts as a poet should look at a few sections of his recent books, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant. Merrill’s versatility and inventiveness fill a description of the small town of Stonington, Connecticut, on Block Island Sound:

White or white-trimmed canary clapboard homes
Set in the rustling shade of monochromes;
Lighthouse and clock tower, Village Green and neat
Roseblush factory which makes, upstreet,
Exactly what, one once knew but forgets—
Something of plastic found in luncheonettes;
The Sound’s quick sapphire that each day recurs
Aflock with pouter-pigeon spin- nakers….
[Mirabell, pp. 53-54]

Here, honest observation and smiling affection make themselves known through the clever rhymes, the exact epithets, and a witty mixture of colloquial with elegant phrasing. Later in the book, the rendition of a storm in musical terms, supported by startling metaphors and (again) rhyming couplets, provides a tour de force of steady movement and shifting points of view (pp. 149-150). In Scripts for the Pageant the incantatory, expanded sestina “Samos” (pp. 87-88) will fill the auditory imagination of an attentive listener; and the evocation of a moonlit red bedroom (pp. 208-209) will delight connoisseurs of nightscapes.

Woken—a bark? Night freshness and dazzle edging
The room’s pitch bright as day. Shutter flung wide,
In streams moonlight, her last quarter blazing
Inches above that wall of carbon mist
Made of the neighbors’. Where- upon the bedside
Tumbler brims and, the tallest story becoming
Swallowable, a mind-altering span- sule,
This red, self-shuttered poverty and Heaven’s
Glittering oxygen tent as one con- spire
Dark dark the bogs do hark… In- streaming, overwhelming
Even as it pulls back, the skyward undertow
Leaves, throughout city and coun- tryside wherever
Somebody wakes and goes to his window, a glowing
Tide-pool dram of bliss, diminuen- do….

Normally, a critic pursues such articles of praise with the judgment that the separate bits of a long poem gain power from their relation to the whole. I am not inclined to say so much. It is true that some obscurities in the best-turned lines may be illuminated by other parts of Merrill’s volumes. So also a reader may profitably recall earlier appearances (in either book) of themes, places, or characters employed in the marked passages. Still I think those passages might win strength if we read them independently.

Wallace Stevens once told Harriet Monroe that he wished to put everything else aside and amuse himself “on a large scale for a while.” If he supposed the advice was good for American poets in general, I disagree. Our best poets came of age after extended narratives and lengthy works of exposition had deserted verse for prose. The so-called long poems of the last hundred twenty-five years (or since the first edition of Leaves of Grass) never represent a triumph of structure; the stronger the narrative, the weaker the verse.

Too many learned critics have wasted too many specious demonstrations on the effort to fit fragments together and show us a marble temple. Lowell could not make Notebook into one grand poem by mere fiat. As for the “long poems” of Wallace Stevens, they exhibit so many redefinitions of the same images, so many reconsiderations of the same points of view, that we should do well to call them sequences—collections of poems on related topics. They may have key words and themes in common; but they have little necessary order, little consistency of doctrine, and much material whose omission would leave no obvious gap.

In Merrill’s recent books the burden of the author’s ambition does not rest comfortably on the foundations of his genius. Merrill’s early mature verse, collected in First Poems (1951), reveals a fascination with stanzaic design and with the extraction of subtle implications from a focused image or situation. The language is refined and musical; the meanings are obscure. The poet habitually works out his song in some form of aria da capo; and sometimes the observer and the image trade places.

Throughout these early poems Merrill displays the mastery of syntactic transition and verbal continuity that marks all his work. He indulges in some word play and in his compulsive habit of standing clichés on their heads. A pervasive feature of the poems is Merrill’s avoidance of moral or social doctrine, a “chronic shyness / Vis-à-vis ‘ideas’ ” (Scripts for the Pageant, p. 137). The artist in his early twenties sounds unwilling to preach on any uplifting subject. He describes a peacock in language echoing the Sermon on the Mount; but opposing “beatitude” to “beautiful,” he sets the fantasy of the peacock’s gorgeous feathers against the mundane defects of ordinary birds: art against normality. The peacock lacks dignity and virtue; it suggests egoism, frivolity, vanity, as well as painful effort. But the poet seems to prefer its fate to that of “merit / In body, word and deed.”


At the same time Merrill almost flaunts a power of fitting his expression into difficult verse forms and strict patterns of images. As compensation, perhaps, he invites the reader to fit his mind into the cryptic paradoxes which the poems convey. Merrill gives riddling human traits to objects and landscapes; he turns abstractions into evasive persons. A reader who stays with the poet must decipher stone, animal, or landscape as an emblematic center around which surprising and absorbing associations cluster themselves: secret and painful recollections of the poet, memories of innocent early experiences which become symbolic anticipations of the deceits and disappointments to be suffered in later years. “Wreath for the Warm-Eyed” turns on a game of hide-and-seek which the poet as a young man played with children. Instead of following the rules, the children simply ran away and left their playmate with a vivid omen of the loneliness and childlessness that were to color his adulthood.

The habit of arriving at a meaning by cross-examining an image, or by inverting the usual relation of metaphor to implication, still dominates the poems collected in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959). For instance, the pregnant sister of the poet reminds him of a pendulum as she rocks in a hammock. So he works out a poem on the clocklike aspects of a pregnancy. “The Doodler” seems to deal with the poet’s scratchings on a pad as he talks to his friends by telephone. But Merrill draws a parallel between the speaker and God.

In “Hotel de l’Univers et Portugal,” the poet and a lover, during their travels abroad, stay in one more bleak hotel room and find their affection deepened by the bleakness—which is of the world as well as the hotel. A lack of possessions or ties (luggage growing lighter as they travel) leaves them unfurnished and therefore open to each other. The analogy between place and person makes the poem; the lovers are a recurrent dream of the strange bed.

With no moral argument and no narrative line, the poems become static and regressive. Although autobiography underlies them, the poet blurs and masks the original experiences: we learn what they are like, what they connote, but not what they are. At last in Water Street (1962), Merrill animates his stanzas by giving us anecdotes of the poet’s life. The old refinement of language remains, but it slips into and out of colloquial slackness. Although the hero of the work is memory, the present keeps springing from the past and peering into the future.

Certain motifs, familiar from earlier works, begin to seem peculiar marks of Merrill’s genius: fire and water, light playing on glass; houses, rooms, and their furnishings, especially mirrors and windows. Certain themes go with them: the poet’s family, erotic adventures and disillusionments, foreign travel, death. Certain devices keep challenging us: personifications that create riddles (e.g., the five senses as demanding children in “From the Cupola”), metaphors that expand into scenes, perceptions that dissolve into symbols; pairs of juxtaposed images which reflect or become each other.

In works like “An Urban Convalescence” and “After Greece” the poet adds psychological depth and self-knowledge to his self-exploration: these poems are permanent additions to our culture. But in “Roger Clay’s Proposal” Merrill still rejects any involvement in public issues; he still refuses to choose among conventional social philosophies.

Instead of moral principles, what he offers in most of his poems is a form of insight which gives meaning to the present by linking and contrasting it with clues from the remote past; and this activity in turn apparently gets the poet moving ahead after a lassitude of confusing emotions. When Merrill expanded his designs into sequential poems, he mixed narrative with meditation and analysis, holding the work together on a thread of place or time: the poet’s surprising travels or the evolution of his psyche. The fascination of the poems derives in part from unconventional or scandalous material: exposure of family secrets and sexual deviations, frank narcissism, an anti-Puritan indulgence in dolce far niente (jigsaw puzzles, games of patience, doodling). But the brilliance of the wordplay, the ingenuity of the conceits, the expressive skill of the versification, all keep the style from appearing self-indulgent.

“The Thousand and Second Night” stretches the snip-and-tape design as far as it will go, skipping from place to exotic place while shuttling back and forth in time. Observation yields to memory; memory to symbolism and startling self-exposure. The poem comes to a focus in the themes of physical decay and death, and the need for the artist to triumph over both by incorporating them into his art. It is as splendid a work as Merrill has produced and occupies twelve pages in Nights and Days (1966).


In the same volume Merrill also tried a full-scale verse narrative, “From the Cupola.” But he lost the shape in allegory and personification. The story of Cupid and Psyche transplanted to a New England village became an excuse for more emblematic and cryptic fantasy than most readers, however loyal, could absorb.

Other experiments with length include “The Summer People” (a narrative fantasy), the openly autobiographical “Days of 1971,” and “Days of 1935” (supposed to be the nine-year-old Merrill’s cinematic dream of being kidnapped by a thug and his moll). Of these the weakest is the one farthest removed from experience, i.e., “The Summer People,” which twists and turns as the poet infuses one or another does of allegory into it.

The strongest of the three is the mock-travel-diary, “Days of 1971,” told as an absurd sonnet sequence addressed to a former lover now serving as chauffeur. The miracle of this poem is the way the speaker conveys the most attractive side of his own character through the cool sprays of analytic wit bestowed on his uncouth but inseparable companion. The paratactic, stop-and-go structure affords free expression to Merrill’s verbal legerdemain; and the suggested link between irritation and the creative process is deeply characteristic of his genius.

If I have managed to sketch the features of Merrill’s accomplishment as his admirers would recognize them, it was a dangerous project for the poet to undertake an enormous opus dealing with metempsychosis, theodicy, cosmogony, and (among other things!) eschatology. Yet this is what we have in The Book of Ephraim, Mirabell, and Scripts for the Pageant. Each one, alas, is longer than its predecessor; and they are all to be followed by an epilogue, “The Ballroom at Sandover,” which closes with the poet beginning to read aloud the entire five-hundred-page text to an audience of dead authors and friends.

At the center of the three-part enterprise we find a dissatisfaction with the possibilities of human life today, a celebration of the world of the dead, and a prophecy of a better race to come. These articles naturally tempt us to wonder about the data that produced them.

The style of life evoked by Merrill’s poems suggests few inhibitions upon pleasurable activities. The poet’s freedom to travel as he wished, to love as he felt inclined, to accumulate possessions, and to yield to moods has set him apart from ordinary men of talent. Yet the outcome of so much accessibility to experience does not strike one as pure felicity. The poems recall love affairs that did not gratify the poet’s ardor. They describe places he visited, scrutinized, and left. They can suggest a disgust with himself at the same time as a disappointment in others: “waste, self-hatred, boredom” (Mirabell, p. 93). Whether these impressions are well- or ill-founded, the doctrines elaborated in Merrill’s three prophetic books do seem to spring from a profound discontent with the normal grounds of moral stability, especially with traditional religion.

The poet’s attitude emerges both through innuendo and through open statement. One reason for rejecting Christianity is evidently its association with repressive morality. Another is the weakness, to the poet’s mind, of its revealed theology. Yet Merrill himself is not constitutionally given to meditating on the principles of ethics, religion, or philosophy; and he has never pretended to expert knowledge in those fields of study. Like most amateurs of abstruse learning, he combines diverse materials from sources that are not naturally harmonious.

In the course of his work the poet refers both to the Book of Genesis and to the version of that history which Milton supplied in Paradise Lost. From time to time he invokes Dante, drawing parallels between his own poems and The Divine Comedy. These parallels may be structural, or in the adoption of themes and images, or simply in the use of terza rima. Elsewhere, we hear echoes of Blake; and Merrill employs Blakean fourteeners for the speech of many otherworldly beings. Yeats, both as a poet and as author of A Vision, is another formative figure named or echoed.

The result is not unpredictable. If a poet rejects Christianity yet accepts materials from Christian texts, if he mingles these with the teachings of quasi-gnostics like Blake and Yeats, he can hardly help sounding like a gnostic himself. Whether or not Merrill has studied Nietzsche, whether or not he has read the work of Hans Jonas, he presents us with inversions of Biblical myth and Christian morality that suggest the tradition of gnosticism. For him, however, matter is not opposed to spirit; it is not identified with evil. Rather, it is the aspect of reality that we owe to a benevolent creator, and that an evil deity wants to dissolve. The poet’s materialism and his attitude toward pleasure suggest a refined epicureanism.

On these elements Merrill imposes some principles of modern science and some narrative motifs of science fiction or quack science: DNA, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs. He also has tastes or fantasies of his own which color and shape the eclectic materials of the poems: a passion for opera, a fascination with mirrors. As culture heroes Proust and Auden seem omnipresent. Constantly, the poet intersperses his otherworldly stuff with episodes of autobiography and images derived from the houses he lives in.

So we get a revelation delivered to Merrill and his friend David Jackson by a cup which their cooperating hands move over a Ouija board, with its arched alphabet, the digits from zero to nine, and the words Yes and No. Because the board has no lower-case letters, the otherworldly messages are transcribed for us in capitals. How lightly should the reader take such a scheme of narration? Merrill’s novel The Seraglio, published in 1957, has a section in which the hero works successfully with a Ouija board. In “Voices from the Other World”—a poem which appeared about the same time—Merrill again reported such success. At least once when he was asked about the trials, he said they were serious.

We have strong American precedent for such occupations. Andrew Jackson Davis, the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” is known to historians of American spiritualism. While in a “magnetized” state, he delivered a course of lectures published as The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations (1847). Here he traced the evolution of the universe and described the solar system, giving details of the planets’ inhabitants. Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906), a sometime Universalist minister, wrote volumes of “trance poetry” dictated by the spirits of Shelley and others. One assumes that Merrill would prefer a connection with Dante and Yeats. But his doctrines are not the sort one might spontaneously expect from the creator of his best poems; and the land that invented spirit-rapping may claim him for her own.

To make a poem hold together when it is five hundred pages long, the poet must keep a large design in mind as he composes his verses and stanzas. But the shape of Ephraim-Mirabell-Scripts changes obstructively during the course of our passage through it. Characters who are introduced as important figures turn out to have little or no part in the story. Doctrines promulgated in one section are casually discarded in another. Spokesmen whom we are urged to trust confess themselves to be liars. Facts laid down in one place are contradicted in another.

Merrill tries to screen himself from such complaints. He expresses doubts concerning the very principles that his poem conveys—though he soon appears persuaded of them by characters in the work itself. He often treats the rebarbative material as symbol or allegory. Yet he also condemns allegory. At points we are told that the otherworldly beings can only draw (for their revelations) on the knowledge and imagination of the poet. Or Merrill simply declares that the whole work is a fiction he is trying to believe.

In The Book of Ephraim (published in Divine Comedies, 1976), Merrill and Jackson open communication with a person who entered the world as a Greek Jew in the time of Christ, was murdered (36 AD), and underwent a number of rebirths; during the reign of Louis XVI he became a French courtier. His name is Ephraim, and he teaches the Ouija boarders that each living person is the “representative” or protégé of a dead one, his “patron.” There are nine stages of existence in the other world; and to qualify for the lowest, a soul must prove itself through a course of reincarnations. Once the poet has got into the habit, other spirits converse by Ouija with him and Jackson, especially spirits of old friends who are temporarily between bodies. He discovers that higher beings exist beyond the nine stages; and these powers break off the telegraphy when patrons try to reveal celestial secrets or to intervene in human affairs. Suddenly, Ephraim declares that he has met the souls of those who lived before mankind.

In Mirabell we too meet the creatures, who are, in fact, the higher powers. They appear human but black, winged, and batlike. While essentially good-natured, they also seem to be the original fallen angels and are themselves under the government of still loftier powers or regnant archangels. Above these in turn rises the God Biology, but even he is not the ultimate, supreme authority. Outside our system are other systems with their own suns and gods—a pantheon.

One of the batmen replaces Ephraim as mentor of the poet and his comrade. About the same time, two dead friends emerge as the steadiest, most informative human connections enjoyed by Merrill and Jackson in the other world. These are a late Athenian friend, Maria Mitsotáki, and the poet W.H. Auden. The group of two live and two dead humans make a quadruple alliance whose education is the theme of the book.

The four pupils grow fond of their master, and he returns the affection. As a result, he undergoes a metamorphosis into the shape of a peacock, to the delight of all five. Eventually, the poet names him Mirabell. Among many other revelations he teaches that the world we know is only the latest in a series of worlds, which were destroyed by various sci-fi events commemorated in well-known myths of universal catastrophe.

Some of the doctrines thrust upon the four friends (and the reader) have peculiar significance. We hear that as men die, the elements of their souls are extracted and refined in spiritual laboratories of the other world, to enrich a tiny proportion of creative minds—scientists, artists, and so forth—who elevate the condition of mankind while the masses remain in an animal state. All sorts of good and evil characters are required as material for these processes; and even animals and plants have souls whose ingredients may be employed to enrich the chosen few.

Yet conflicts arise from each stage of evolution and open the way to difficulties or dangers which the “vital laboratories” of the world must labor to control. Mind keeps organizing chaos, and chaos keeps resisting mind in an almost Manichaean rhythm.

In effect, traditional morality has little place in the poem. One reason is a kind of determinism. We hear that nothing in human events is accidental; for the genes of men are altered or “cloned” in the laboratories so as to change the institutions of mankind according to the wise desires of God Biology and the governors of the other world. Not only are all human actions predetermined, therefore, but the direction of history is ultimately benign; and it is hardly fair to blame people for misconduct that is imposed on them.

Sin, we are told, is only pain, given and received (Scripts for the Pageant, p. 173). The poet certainly does not admire those who abstain from hedonistic self-indulgence. And though he recommends devotion to others, the only self-discipline clearly praised is that of the artist.

These central doctrines float above a profusion of lesser principles concerning the evolution of the human species, the organization of life after death, the uses of the imagination, and so forth. It becomes clear that many of the propositions addressed to us are wholly or partly metaphorical and that the communications with otherworldly beings are derived from the poet’s own fancy. But Mirabell continues lecturing in a rather telegraphic style until at the very end of the book he makes way for an archangel, Michael.

In Scripts for the Pageant, as in Mirabell, the scenes of earthly life and action shrink in scope while the range given to otherworldly wisdom expands. The body of the book is a set of question-and-answer séances in which Michael and his fellow archangels (Emmanuel, Raphael, and Gabriel) explain various aspects of creation and evolution to the poet and his comrades. God Biology, we now learn, has a female twin in Nature, personified as a young woman. But he is also pitted against a dark “monitor,” who reverses time and annihilates matter. Among a stream of new characters two recently dead friends of the poet join the familiar foursome. They are George Cotzias, a medical research scientist, and Robert Morse, an amateur musician.

Besides the talk shows, Merrill provides scenes of preparatory dialogue leading up to them and scenes of reflective conversation commenting on them. He also affords us a number of masques in which familiar and unfamiliar characters take parts as embodiments of universal principles. Raphael, for example, is earth and wit; Gabriel is death and fire. There are performances by the nine muses and by the founders of great religions (Buddha, Christ, Mohammed). All the characters keep wavering between personality and symbolism, and the otherworldly action is heavily allegorical.

Because the doctrines set forth are numerous but fragmentary and inconsistent, it would be risky to attempt to expound them. Behind the whole assemblage, however, one detects attitudes that seem fundamentally revealing. For instance, the outcome of the process of selection and refinement that goes on in the spiritual laboratories—one that gives a benign aspect to the wars and plagues devastating mankind—is the development of a new race of men, “alpha men,” about whom we are told little except that they will be healthier, longer-lived, happier, and more creative than our own lot.

Yet a third of the way through Scripts for the Pageant we hear the voice of God B singing in remote solitude to his far-off, unseen brothers of the pantheon and asking for a response from those gods. Referring to time as annihilation, he sings, “In my night I hold it back” (p. 78). The song rings out again at the end of the poem. I cannot help relating it to the poet, who aspires to stave off annihilation by restoring lost time through art. Merrill seems to yearn to bestow immortality on his dead friends and ultimately on himself by celebrating them and grouping them with immortals of one sort or another.

But at the same time one asks whether a subtler impulse may not be at work. Ephraim and Mirabell both lose their dignity in the course of the poems. We discover, gradually, that we cannot trust their information. Although they charm and love the poet, he does not finally respect them; and at moments they become contemptible. The slide from awed fascination to condescension suggests the way a man who has many love affairs comes to feel let down by each beloved. Looking for an idealized form of himself in the other, he is eventually disappointed because of an innate self-distrust.

“Mirabell” is suspiciously close in sound to “Merrill”; and when the batman is transformed into a peacock, the poet marks the occasion with a passage in the same form of stanza that he used for the early poem, in which a peacock seemed an emblem of his own gift and burden. So also the “alpha men,” whose emergence—we are advised—will not be long delayed, might reflect a disillusionment with acquaintances of the poet who have failed, over the years, to satisfy his expectations from human society.

As he appears in his works, the poet strikes one as somebody with many friends who seek him out but few (if any) warm, long-lasting intimacies that he keeps close, season after season, day after day. When friends die, during the three long poems, they become, of course, manageable. The poet can summon them and ignore them as he turns to and leaves the Ouija board. With little emotional strain, he can thus preserve a circle of trustworthy and amiable chums.

Besides (we learn), the otherworldly friends may see one another only in the poet’s light, and they have no life outside his imagination. Consequently, he controls them completely; they are always, lovingly, at his service. At the close of Scripts for the Pageant, Maria, Auden, and Cotzias leave the other world for new existences in our own, as if the poet were reluctant to let them continue together without him after he had finished his work. In a terminal ritual, Merrill and Jackson break a mirror into a bowl of water. It is through mirrors that the dead have the power to glimpse the living: so the poet is shutting them off from anyone else.

Related to this will to control one’s characters is a lack of straightforward narrative. It does not seem easy for Merrill’s imagination to nourish independent, self-determined persons. He seldom allows a fiction to go its own way. If the characters are not versions of figures from his childhood and youth, they take on a weight of myth that cramps them into symbolic postures. Merrill’s deeply autobiographical first novel, The Seraglio, has a life that his second, The (Diblos) Notebook, lacks. In the later story the author is too busy fitting masks on his creatures to let them work through an absorbing dramatic action.

In Ephraim-Mirabell-Scripts not only does the element of narrative fail us, but the poet also relies on arbitrary schemes to give an impression of order. He divides The Book of Ephraim according to the letters of the alphabet on the Ouija board, beginning each section with the appropriate letter and sometimes finding themes that are appropriate. In Mirabell the digits from nine to zero inherit the same function, and in Scripts for the Pageant the three words “Yes,” “&,” “No.” But these arrangements seem mechanical; they want inner meaning.

Merrill’s versatility as a poet constantly shines before us. Again and again he wrings a sonnet from what look like random lines; or he moves gracefully through a ballade; or he adapts the meter to the person and occasion, as when God B sings in ten lines of ten syllables each. In a passage dealing with reincarnation, Merrill rhymes the penultimate syllable of the odd lines with the final syllable of the even. Musical effects, calculated enjambments, and other expressive devices will delight the careful reader.

A specimen of the ease with which Merrill moves among stages of emotion and levels of reality is an interlude of Mirabell when the poet is about to telephone his mother (pp. 138-139). The form is peculiarly elegant, because it occurs in Book Seven and there are seven stanzas in a difficult pattern of line lengths and rhymes. Effortlessly, Merrill associates the idea of mother with nature, reality, and earth, which he contrasts for a moment with the starlit sky—emblem of mind and artifice. Yet earth herself is of course an artist, and performs acts of imagination with her seasons and landscapes. As Merrill works the telephone dial, he feels suspended between the pleasures of imagination and those of sensuous reality. Then a sudden uneasiness, when his mother does not answer at once, dissolves the symbolism and leaves us with distinct human beings.

But the most satisfying passages are the few that deal with the poet’s observation of the known world and its life. In Scripts for the Pageant, a detachable section called “The House in Athens” (pp. 148-152) gives us a witty record of the changes that Merrill and Jackson made in their Greek home. Puns, personifications, and brightly remembered details join to transform the ordeals of interior decoration and house repair into an affectionate comedy. The place grows into a patron goddess—cranky but maternal—of two friends’ affections.

Reading such verses, one has a standard for judging the bulk of the three long poems. Surely the proportion of otherworldly business is misjudged in them, and it impedes rather than enriches the effective passages. The doctrines do not collaborate to give the poems direction; rather, they hold back the flow, and seem to fix us once more in the immobility of Merrill’s first two collections.

Other poets have reflected searchingly on ultimate questions. Richard Wilbur, in “Walking to Sleep,” tells us, with fresh images and penetrating insight, about the darks and lights of human nature. But Wilbur was early and naturally drawn to religious and moral problems, and his poem is barely six pages long. Merrill’s steady disinclination to immerse himself in “great ringing ‘themes’ ” (Scripts for the Pageant, p. 109) hardly prepared him for the challenge he courageously took up in his new books.

This Issue

January 22, 1981