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 boy and the divorced parents; the Oedipal triangulation of the “merger of Heart and Hurt / that made me”; stockbroker’s son and opera buff; the long and sustaining union with David Jackson, his pièce rose; the two troubled affairs, one with Hans Lodeizen, a Dutch poet dead at twenty-six, the other the person varyingly called “Strato” or “S,” his pièce noire. Around such data, the poems—embedded miniatures, hermetic cameos—are constructed, subtracted from, poems full of definitions and redefinitions, the interweaving of themes and frames periodically connecting one collection to the next. “Scenes of Childhood” and “Five Old Favorites,” for instance, are clearly trial runs for the dolors of “The Broken Home” (echoes of which filter through the interpretation of a Giorgione painting—son, mother, dragon—in The Book of Ephraim, the first book of the trilogy).
The introspective tonalities of “An Urban Convalescence,” a turning point in Merrill’s career, gain full weight, intricacy, and exuberance in “The Thousand and Second Night.” The satirical “Charles” poems have linkages with a later bit of salon portraiture, “The Friend of the Fourth Decade”; Charles being also the first name of Merrill’s father, who appears in a provocative coupling with Ali Pasha in the historical reverie “Yánnina,” where the young Byron (perhaps the young Merrill), a guest in Ali’s kingdom, “likes / The luxe, and overlooks the heads on pikes.” While the hysterical complaint of “Childlessness,” written in his thirties, is eventually redeemed in the unexpected openness, ease, and poignance of “Up and Down,” particularly the last stanzas in which the poet’s mother gives her son an emerald ring, “a den of greenest light,” that “grows, shrinks, glows.” It had been given her by the poet’s father in honor of Merrill’s birth “‘Here, take it for—/ For when you marry,”‘ she stammers; “‘For your bride. It’s yours.”‘
I did not tell her, it would sound
Indeed this green room’s mine, my
We are each other’s; there will be
The little feet that patter here are
But onto her worn knuckle slip the ring.
Wear it for me, I silently entreat,
Until—until the time comes. Our
The world beneath the world is
Poetry, like Merrill’s in From the First Nine, that depends so much on settings, on objects, touches, at times, animism (the small-town iconography of one poem has a postmaster, Mr. Bird, and two neighbors, Old Miss Tree and Mrs. Stone, “mute on her dazzling lawn”), delights as much in spoonerisms as in Freudian lapsus linguae or James’s “torment of taste.” It relishes images of tenancy (“mornings in a new house,” “closets full of clues”), of the Apollonian flâneur and the Dionysian voyou, or the banquet of Auden’s “precious five,” what the tongue savors and the eye catches (“lemon trees,” their gusts of sharp cologne, “bearing and in bloom at once”). Cosmopolitan attitudes are continually being struck or struck down, masks both decried and accepted, especially “the erotic mask / Worn the world over by illusion / To weddings of itself and simple need.”
Memory is the magical vehicle through which the problem of age is best understood, most readily absorbed—evenings becoming grayer, daylight colder, the poet resembling a “smiling ghost / Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the fire.” Fire, or alternatively, water or mirror, are the most recurring symbols, and each is redeemed by time, changed by time. Topical allusions, generally rare, have the effect of a grenade lobbed onto a garden party (“Yesterday also Robert Kennedy’s / Train of refrigerated dignitaries / Last seen on TV burying Dr King / Wormed its way to Arlington Cemetery”).
In such a poetry, then, it’s hardly surprising that a character will come “to his senses through a work of art,” or surprising to find long lines, full of hyphens, parentheses, semicolons, followed by abrupt inversion (“Backbreaking it was to haul them home”), or that the diction, always melodious, often dense, as related to Proust as to Campion, is not exempt from occasional affectation: “Great drifts of damask cleaned our lips of grease” is not altogether apt, I should think, as a description of two people wiping their mouths during dinner.
Nor is it surprising that Merrill bears little relation either to what a member of his class would be doing in the era of the jet set or to the lives of most of his colleagues, academic or bohemian, in the parochial world of American poetry—too rigorous for the one, he’s too raffiné for the other. He’s not acquired a school of epigones like John Ashbery or emerged as a representative figure like Robert Lowell, though in stature he’s easily the equal of both. He remains singularly himself, uniquely set apart.
Cavafy said of his flat at 10 rue Lepsius: “Where else could I be better situated than here amid these three centers of existence; a brothel, a church which forgives, and a hospital where you die”—the irony reminds us of Heine, the conceit behind it of Baudelaire, and these echoes are meant to reverberate in the cultivated reader’s mind. This is a mandarin sensibility, as learned as it is casual, one ill at ease in the amnesiacal modern world, and with little chance of continuation in the future. Such a sensibility Merrill of course shares. Unlike Cavafy, however, Merrill can often seem more sensibility than personality, the “marked if undecipherable feeling,” the perfect cadences (“Life-sentenced to the honey-cell of song, / Harsh melisma, torturous diphthong”) appearing now and again to be made out of the sheerest ephemera. So one always has to read a lot of Merrill before his chimerical features or fictions, psychologically speaking, come clear.
Aside from a certain aura of youthfulness, the indelible signature of his entire career (the trilogy even has a scientist friend at work on a wonder drug to prevent aging), the catalyst energizing most of From the First Nine is, I feel, the isolating of an individual trait, a “flaw” in the prevailing equanimity, the grain of sand in the shell of the oyster that creates the pearl. Usually that takes the form of amour propre, either in a bittersweet, universal sense, as in Merrill’s rendering of what he dubs “Proust’s Law”: “Whatever least thing our self-love longs for most / Others instinctively withhold,” or it becomes mysteriously heartless, as in the emblematic Jack Frost, “years older / Than his twenty-year-old face,” the oblique playboy and hero of “The Summer People,” one of Merrill’s most piquant and accessible ballads—the “famous host,” with his ritual of bridge, gossip, croquet, ultimately strangled in “pride and regret.”
But Merrill’s amour propre, beneath the convoluted wryness, has deeper entanglements: sexual or filial guilt, the dual knot of family romance and romantic agony, the tyrannical beloveds who betray or enslave, the authority figures who condemn (or the reverse: note Merrill’s rich boy in “Days of 1935” ratting on his once glamorous thug and moll: “You I adored I now accuse…”). With these obsessional properties come the sadistic or masochistic intruders on his Parnassian surfaces (“We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong. / We love as well the wicked and the weak”), who serve less for emotional fulfillment, I think, than, paradoxically, for escape from emotional bondage. How can one be set free of love through love? How can the lover sacrifice his possessive need of the beloved, or vice versa, in order that the beloved go about his or her own adventure, which may include another and different love, another and better “elsewhere”? The poet or persona in his relation to the look, the feel, the mirroring presence of the other (“Father Time and Mother Earth,” Eros and Thanatos) wishes to be either free of the need to be possessive or free of the one who needs to possess him.
Because in Merrill’s work dreams and dream narratives are so often paramount, along with the antiphonal use of questions and answers (a device expanded to encyclopedic density in the trilogy), the more a tale is retold, the more truth, presumably, it will reveal. But there’s a danger. The more a tale is retold, the more it loses its original intensity (or indeed the emotional indignity that had most likely inspired it), and hence the basis of its emotional power. Also the more attention one pays to the various possibilities of translating a tale from one poem to the next—the pyrotechnical “Lost in Translation” is itself a kind of palimpsest: a memoir of Mademoiselle, Merrill’s childhood governess, who speaks French with an accent allemand, and an evocation of a Rilke paraphrase of Valéry’s “Palme”—the more nuances the poet accumulates, yet at the same time the more distance he places between himself and the original text. As in Karl Kraus, “The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.”
This is one reason, no doubt, why in the Merrill of From the First Nine, despite the irresistible verve, there is, normally, so little of the rawly honest, still less of brute force. (One cannot get “close” to Merrill: the perennial complaint of his critics.) A reason why, too, the fateful figures one thinks of in connection with him are never the canonical ones of anomie, no Sisyphus or Tithonus laboring under a harsh existential curse, and no voix de la foule; rather one thinks of Marsyas, say, challenging Apollo, human virtuosity as against the superhuman, Penelope each night unraveling what she’s woven by day, or Scheherazade continually postponing her death through the thousand and one ruses of art. One thinks, that is, of figures of fancy, exilic or triumphant; with the drama lying primarily in states of estrangement (libidinal, geographical, familial), the anxiety over fortune or misfortune (not knowing how long one’s good luck will last, how much worse one’s bad luck may become).
“The Thousand and Second Night,” practically a treasury of much of the above, is an éducation sentimentale, a poet’s travel journal set against the decaying cities of Athens or Istanbul, the splendors of “frantic West,” “passive Orient”; a comedy of manners (including glimpses of a family scandal) with a tag from Hofmannsthal: “All manners are symbolic,” and intimations of Mauberley or Prufrock in contemporary dress. Here once again the “dumbest” and “cleverest” emerge, the aesthete gently mocking his own fastidiousness, his “precious sensibility,” the adventurer slyly ironic about the risks involved. The poem is orchestrated in suitably diverse keys and combinations, brisk and Byronic in one of the earlier sections, courtly and ornamental in the last, the concluding quatrains emphasizing Merrill’s favorite abba rhyme scheme, as the previous meditations on illness and health, soul and body, art and disease effortlessly rise now to a sovereign, mythic grace:
And when the long adventure reached its end,
I saw the Sultan in a glass, grown old,
While she, his fair wife still, her tales all told,
Smiled at him fondly. “O my dearest friend,”
Said she, “and lord and master from the first,
Release me now. Your servant would refresh
Her soul in that cold fountain which the flesh
Knows not. Grant this, for I am faint with thirst.”
And he: “But it is I who am your slave.
Free me, I pray, to go in search of joys
Unembroidered by your high, soft voice,
Along that stony path the senses pave.”
They wept, then tenderly embraced and went
Their ways. She and her fictions soon were one.
He slept through moonset, woke in blinding sun,
Too late to question what the tale had meant.
By the time of the trilogy, though, Merrill is in his fifties; neuroses lessen, horizons widen, another threshold is at hand—indeed a stratospheric one. Merrill’s abiding wish to “act the part,” write it, and witness the performance at one and the same time is here granted, with all its problems. The overall question of love, of dependency and independence, metamorphoses into the greater question of human destiny. How free is man in his existence? How controlled? The phantasmagorical, always a factor in Merrill, is in the trilogy the guiding principle; the precedent for such ontological investigations, even if unacknowledged, is to be found, not so much in Dante, as has been claimed, but rather, I believe, in Carlyle, Borges, Mallarmé. The possibility being explored is that reality is a “universal book,” that all artists write one “common book,” that we do not live so much as we are lived; or one can think of a precedent in Schopenhauer’s “multiplicity of phenomena,” his idea of time and space as a “vast dream, dreamed by a single being, in such a way that all the dream characters dream too, so that everything interlocks and harmonizes with everything else.” (In Merrill’s gloss: “everything merges and reflects.”)
These ideas as ideas, not new, certainly, almost primitive, are “new,” however, in the startling use that Merrill has made of them, in an audacious, and audaciously amusing, conjunction with the arcana of contemporary culture, the post-Einsteinian, postmodern, information society of today. (Also, equally unacknowledged, is the use he has made, or the use they’ve made of him, of both our most private and our most public languages, dream and wit, the one to defeat the “reality principle,” the other to augment the “pleasure principle.”) Thus Merrill’s earlier motif, the world as a bazaar selling innumerable cosmopolitan illusions, now is becoming the cosmological bazaar of the trilogy, of innumerable myths along with innumerable universes, with Greece, Merrill’s earlier, liberating “elsewhere,” becoming in turn the even more liberating heaven that surrounds us, or the “heaven” that is “the surround of the living.”
All such fabulae are to be had for the price, as it were, of a Ouija board—the most audacious act of all. As Merrill (JM) and Jackson (DJ) sit together at their house in Stonington—the contrary aspects of Merrill’s temperament once more at play: the “dumbest” fostering credulity, the “cleverest” his skepticism—they commune with their “familiars,” Ephraim or Mirabell, an assortment of recently dead friends (Auden, Maria Mitsotáki, Chester Kallman, et al.), august spooks (mostly poets, musicians, philosophers), and the tutelary angels, archangels, and gods representing the bureaucracy of outer space and also monitoring (none too well it would appear) the little planet Earth. So in the trilogy we find a red room to receive the messages, a blue room to transcribe them, and a printout typography to differentiate from among the assemblage—lower-case lettering for the auditors, upper-case for the spirits and their astral mysteries: nine stages in Mirabell’s Books of Number, twenty-five or so lessons in Scripts for the Pageant, and five ceremonies in the coda.
While obviously more ludic than tragic, and more epiphanic than epic, the trilogy is epic for all that. It is a colloquy with the immortals and a commentary, with many pointedly cryptic asides, on the nature of immortality, or the “mortality” that “allows for the divine translation.” It is also a retrospective cataloguing of Merrill’s past oeuvre, past themes (including a farewell to the romantic agony) and an augury of events to come (we learn how much longer DJ has to live, that JM will not repeat his karma, this life is to be his last). Allegory mixes with tomfoolery, Dantean spirals with Proustian longueurs, game theory and catastrophe theory nuzzle heavenly ascents (egalitarianism and elitism, war and peace are debated vis-à-vis the gods in their cloning shops and “R Labs” promoting or demoting the primates they keep manufacturing from one age to the next).
As mercurial in doctrine as in its rhetorical flourishes or sibylline mise en scène, The Changing Light at Sandover has, also, a musical structure (roughly a trio of key voices in the kaleidoscopic first book, a quintet in the second, a grand ensemble in the last) with JM, the maestro of the spheres, learning to “let the silence after each / Note sing.” There is an element of suspense: can we outwit chaos (currently the burden of Hiroshima) and bring paradise earthward, so that we can achieve the “heaven” that has been given us, time after botched time, “to win”? This is an uplifting quest: works of the arts and sciences, “V WORKS,” which once enlarged our world, now must be enlisted in order to save it, the trilogy being itself an example of one such possible endeavor (Merrill is asked by his “voices” to write “poems about science”).
And the poem has a utopian hope: waiting on the next rung of the evolutionary ladder, immune to our muddled battles and disasters, are the Alpha Men, not Nietzsche’s “dragon slayers,” but those who will, if all goes well, be saner, happier, but also duller than our current lot (the ultimate apotheosis, I guess, of dumbest and cleverest). And throughout the common center remains, of course, the magical dexterity of the poet himself. For as MM (Maria Mitsotáki) neatly puts it: “ALL THINGS ARE DONE HERE IF U HAVE TECHNIQUE.”
Now in this all-night talk show of the dead, this “spyhole on the Infinite,” some of the otherwordly one-liners are certainly funny (Callas, fretting in heaven: “THEY CALL THIS THE STAR’S DRESSING ROOM THIS HOLE?”), and many of the extraterrestrial disquisitions are arresting, to say the least; yet it’s precisely because of all the wit and wisdom that it’s a little hard for me to believe in the basis of Merrill’s “vision”—that is, his “stray souls maneuvering / Round the tea cup.” At times they seem all too like a distillation—the mandarin’s own—of previous seances, divinatory or childhood texts, classic poems, dramas, fictions resting on library shelves here on earth. On and off while reading the trilogy, I thought of Orphée, The Fall of Hyperion, La Jeune Parque, Magister Ludi, Finnegans Wake, both the Ring cycles (Tolkein and Wagner are mentioned), An Experiment with Time (the theme of infinite regression), Back to Methuselah (orations on the life force), Cities of the Red Night (the notion that a nuclear apocalypse had occurred eons ago somewhere in the Gobi), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (see Freud’s negative remarks on “Determinism, Chance, and Superstitious Belief”), Blake’s Los, Carroll’s Alice, much of Firbank (isn’t the elfin and avuncular Ephraim—“MY DEARS I AM BEST SUITED WHEN U STRIP”—quite as good as any character in Firbank?), as well as those once popular gurus of the Sixties’ flower kids, particularly Edgar Cayce (his messages from Atlantis burbling at the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle).
In addition, MM has, I think, a touch of Auntie Mame, and not a few of the gibes of WHA (Auden), wonderful though they are, reminded me of the kind I’d heard more than once at St. Mark’s Place in the Village. (Evidently the experiences of the hereafter do not radically alter personality. A pity. One looks for novelty—in this life or out of it. True, Auden does regret his past Anglicanism—not up to sci-fi standards—but isn’t that also like those unexpected bolts of disclosure he dropped from time to time in his essays?) While the most unusual, or upsetting, insights have really less to do with science (all the “biophysichemical” graffiti), than with, significantly enough, literature. Rimbaud, for instance, “ghostwrote ‘The Waste Land”‘ because, we learn, “R SPOKE TOO SOON,” and did not accomplish his own “V WORK.” Actually this seems to me very flattering to Eliot, but that does not prevent him from politely chastising Merrill in a fleeting appearance near the end of the trilogy’s coda: “ONE THING YOU SHOULD KNOW / THESE WORKS, YOU UNDERSTAND? THAT OTHERS ‘WRITE’ / … ARE YET ONE’S OWN.” A good way, also, of summing up Merrill’s own powers of transmogrification, which in any case had earlier, playfully as usual, garnered Yeats’s stamp of approval. Speaking of A Vision: “MR. M., / I MADE A HASH. YOU’VE MADE IT CLEAR. THANK YOU….”
The trilogy, as everyone must have gathered, is an arduous poem, steep and lofty, more than a little difficult to climb, explore, and comprehend, its intricate faceting of the serious and unserious, sacred and profane, vexing to many a reader; but it has, I believe, one controlling stratagem, Merrill’s persistent use of doubling or “enwinning”—the “sparkling” that “comes easy to the Gemini,” as announced previously in “In Nine Sleep Valley.” It is a stratagem that can serve as a guide to all the bizarrerie, a diversity ultimately embracing a unity, and also, if one has a taste for litany, as a kind of “plot.”
To cite but a few pertinent examples: JM and DJ, representing the Dioscuri themselves; God Biology (God B) and Psyche, his female “double,” akin to our “twin parents,” or “brother sun and sister moon,” with MM and WHA now and then moonlighting, in a counterpoint of unusual delicacy, as JM’s surrogate mum and dad. Then there is the epigraph from Dante, introduced at the beginning of the trilogy, exemplifying the doubling motif of mirroring, lo speglio and its thoughtful gaze embodying all, minori e’ grandi (the Dante who also said, “For if we have no knowledge of half we can never understand double, and so of the rest”), or the mirror at the house in Stonington both summoning and releasing the spirits of the dead.
Reincarnation is seen both as a parable of the artist (the many styles, roles, voices, the creative temperament is heir to) and as an analogue of historical ricorso (man and his many cycles). The “twin forces” of “history’s great worm” are likened to those “within / any least atom”; the celebration of the five senses is presented against the invocation of the trilogy’s five regnant avatars (Akhnaton, Homer, Montezuma, Nefertiti, Plato). MM, it turns out, is, or has been, all the nine Muses, as well as Plato; Ephraim is also Michael the Archangel, or vice versa. There is a Mozartian lightness in the causerie of the mortals, a Wagnerian texture in the declamations of the gods (this juxtaposition is a bit of a strain; a little Puccini would have helped, befitting JM and DJ’s vissi d’arte). If DJ, “the True,” “the Wise,” has a patron in the beyond who’s a clergyman, JM has one who’s edited Pope’s work, plus his old love Hans, the dead poet, his unused artistry now energizing JM’s poem.
If “duality”—“FOR IN DUALITY IS DIMENSION, / TENSION, ALL THE TRUE GRANDEUR WANTING IN A PERFECT THING”—is meant by Merrill to stand as a definition of mankind, it can also accommodate the labors of the higher powers, who occasionally, or so we’re told, bravely “double” as human beings (as with MM). And if we have myths about the gods, the gods have myths about themselves, “myths that antecede myths.” And if the gods are monitoring us, they too are being monitored by mysterious forces outside their ken (indeed we never do discover just who is the Lord High Everything Else). Finally, the trilogy itself appears as the ultimate act of doubling: opening with the word “admittedly,” it closes with the word “admittedly,” with Merrill beginning to recite, for most of those who’ve already appeared in it, and to others of the illustrious dead gathering to hear it, in the celestial bailiwick at Sandover, which is also “the old ball-room of the Broken Home,” the long poem (560 pages) we’ve just read. (“Our poem, now,” as Merrill remarks to DJ, in the recent and separate “Clearing the Title,” the postscript to From the First Nine. “It’s signed JM, but grew / From life together, grain by coral grain.”)
Though I’ve obviously been emphasizing the trilogy as a brilliant jeu d’esprit, which it mischievously is, Merrill and Jackson as the eternal students in an extravaganza of instruction and illumination, the poem’s real power, and not the least of its charms, lies, I think, elsewhere. It is eclectic, eccentric, wildly ethereal or abstruse. The theology is basically a crossweaving of Manichaeism and Zen Buddhism, with Christianity as mostly another variant of literary mysticism, as in, say, Novalis: “To the truly religious man, nothing is sin.” Merrill admirably forbids all fanaticism, particularly Jehovah and his tribal lore (and this despite the many compliments paid to “Jew density” or the Kaballah).
But the trilogy is also, oddly enough, the closest that Merrill has yet come to showing life in flesh and blood. Detail after mosaic detail—antics of Ephraim, arabesques of MM and WHA, fete at Venice, storm in Stonington, masque at Sandover, interrelated snapshots of JM and DJ’s life on earth, elegiac strains or consolatory ones—all have the quiver and shimmer, ripple-within-ripple texture of a kind of impressionist commedia dell’arte, and with a good amount of unblinking empathy besides. Merrill’s old penchant for tidying up the universe is still around, as are touches of the old preciosity or the old “heartlessness” (“heredity” is characteristically described as “Narcissus bent / Above the gene pool”). But a sensibility once overrich in secondary sources and seemingly bankrupt of primary ones has been happily, if no less ruefully, adjusted—experience now truly haunts, for the most part, the lightest of his lines.
Indeed the trilogy is best read, I suspect, as Merrill’s own highly idiosyncratic way of making peace with a number of former battlegrounds. Posterity, for instance: the children one will never have, the child (“enfant“) one has always been, the family romance suffered, sustained, never mastered; a many-tracked theme (is it significant that JM and God B are both the youngest scions of their respective houses?) which includes not only the childless homosexual union of JM and DJ (at the trilogy’s conclusion these “Rover Boys” celebrate twenty-five years of “marriage,” DJ obligingly taking his place “beyond words” at JM’s side), but also the childless heterosexual union of Vasíli and Mimí, two of their close friends.
The trilogy provides a way, as well, of including the gods in one’s own mortal predicament: the cry in the wilderness, the song of God B, signaling to one of his brothers in the outermost reaches of the empyrean, attempting to hold back the annihilating presence of universal night, like a prisoner tapping on the walls of his cell to another prisoner trapped on the other side. A way, also, of comprehending art’s own terrible entrapment: “Art—/ The tale that all but shapes itself—survives / By feeding on its personages’ lives. / The stripping process, sort of. What to say?” “Our lives led to this. It’s the price we pay” (one recalls here Beatrice’s humiliation of Dante the better to redeem him). This is JM’s answer to DJ’s repeated questioning of art’s sacrificial nature or his wish to break free of the Ouija board’s thralldom (“Isn’t it like a door shutting us off from living?”).
Above all, the poem provides a way for the mandarin’s “overfurnished mind” to reconcile itself with civilization’s supersaturated complexity, or a way of making sense of anxiety by way of making sense of fragmentation, so that all the elements of a particular life, “love and loss,” drawing room and basfond, “the wicked and the weak,” even the ancient business of the “flaw”—RM (Robert Morse), charming wastrel in his previous Stonington incarnation, is to be reborn as a musical genius, but with a club foot: “BEFORE, YOU LIMPED. NOW HOBBLED YOU WILL LEAP!”—at last cohere into the transfiguration of a grand design, which is both a culmination and something continually subject to further depletion and repletion, part of the enigmatic rhythms of “REVELATION’S CONSTANT PROCESS”; a thesis expounded in its simplest, most abbreviated guise in the lovely villanelle, with its faintly Tennysonian hum, located in the middle of Mirabell, but capable, for all its fragility, of encompassing the trilogy as a whole (Maisie, another beloved, is the poet’s dead cat):
It sinks in gradually, all that’s meant
By this wry motto governing things here
Below and there above: No Acci-
Patrons? Parents? Healthy achiev-
On moving up, not liable to queer
The Lab work. It sinks in, what
had been meant
By the adorable dumb omen sent
TO TEST EXALT & HUMBLE U MY DEAR
Strato? ET AL Maisie? NO ACCI-
Gunman high-strung and Archduke negligent,
Warnings garbled in the dreamer’s
All, all, it sinks in gradually, was
To happen, and not just the gross event
But its minutest repercussion. We’re
Awed? Unconvinced? That too’s no accident.
The clause is self-enacting; the in- tent,
Like air, inscrutable if crystal-clear.
Keep breathing it. One dark day, what it meant
Will have sunk in past words.
But the trilogy goes wrong for me in one significant respect: Merrill’s underlying assumption, however qualified or jollied along, that science, the great demythologizer of the world, is somehow confirming all the rigmarole of a grand design. Or, even worse, that it’s sanctioning the stuttering belief (unwisely put in the mouth of Auden) that “FACT IS IS IS FABLE.” Perhaps so, sub specie aeternitatis. But such a belief has surely been disastrous in our history, and in science’s as well, from the first tyrant to the last demagogue. In the realm of morals nothing’s “new”; what changes are one’s attitudes—social, political, sexual—toward the moral life; and hence the possible basis of a grand design. In the realm of science the dictum does not hold; science being perpetually concerned with discovering the hidden, exploding the old, establishing the new. So to be told, as one of Merrill’s “scientific” explanations of “evil,” that the perfidious pride of the “BLACKS” or “MONITORS” (similar to Yeats’s “Frustrators” in A Vision), in yielding, at creation’s dawn, to the temptation of power and of splitting the original atom, had thus brought about all our earthly woe, is merely to reenter, with yet another fable, the illustrated Bible of childhood, complete now with a nota bene a bit more au courant: “THE ATOM CANNOT BE MAN’S FRIEND.”
Further, the professed inability of the trilogy’s celestial orders to set things right after “980,000,000 SUN YEARS” (to use just one of the awesome measurements of time here) hardly bodes well, I should think, for the fate of the earth, or its eventually turning into utopia, and indeed brings into question the entire cosmic enterprise, to say nothing of the dubious talents of the deities themselves. The point being that once teleological or eschatological concerns are presented in the alien terms of physical, geological, or chemical laws, in which vitalist or finalist theories do not apply, they tend, alas, to become farcical. And while that may well be the truth of the matter (the only poets I know actually related to science—Omar Khayyam because he was an astronomer and Lucretius because he wrote De Rerum Natura—were both, more or less, nihilists), I doubt that was Merrill’s intention in the trilogy.
Still, what is the point of complaining? As Homer once sang of arms and the man and in praise of the Olympians for creating his panoply of earthly contention, as the Venetian painters of the Renaissance often subverted Biblical subject matter with a gorgeous paganism, so Merrill, throughout the trilogy, is continually aestheticizing the claims of science just as he is aestheticizing those of religion (or even the Ouija board). And with the same end in view, since, of course, his only real god, here and elsewhere, is the god of the imagination, “a way of telling that inspires belief,” whatever else he might fancy he’s intimating to the contrary. (The coupling, at one point, of Mallarmé and Montezuma—“Powers of lightness, darkness, powers that be,” the coupling, that is, of artistic genius and worldly might—says as much.) Indefatigable in its verbal ingenuities, its fierce and amiable wit, polysemous in all the thematic machinery, exemplary in prosody (sonnets, ballades, villanelles, sestinas, blank verse, terza rima, ottava rima, a style at once colloquial and exalted, and with a warmth and conviviality new to Merrill), the trilogy (though it goes on far too long, gets periodically dizzy, has too much felix culpa and not enough mea culpa) is, surely, an astonishing performance, not a masterpiece, but as near to one, I think, as anything else that American poetry has produced in the last two or three decades, and the capstone—for now, anyway—of an extraordinary career.
When one compares Merrill’s career, early and late, or the methods behind it, with that of Lowell or Ashbery; Merrill’s sexual disclosures with those of Cavafy or Cernuda, George or Thom Gunn; his general reflections on the times with the works of Brodsky or Milosz; the domestic details with Montale’s “Xenia” poems; his use of mythology with the procedures of Geoffrey Hill in England; or even the campiness, Merrill’s “high camp,” with the more demotic sort found in O’Hara and Schuyler, one sees immediately how singular, how polished, how untouchable, in every sense of that word, a creator he is.
One also realizes his limitations. Wholly a poet, Merrill is not, obviously, a poet given to exploring the worst as well as the best. (His “both ways” philosophy, as I’ve already suggested, is not that ecumenical.) In real life, MM had cancer and committed suicide—a subject, typically, only tentatively or ambiguously remarked upon, as are Merrill’s own teasing admissions of “waste, self-hatred, boredom.” And the complaint of his nephew heard in the marvelous terza rima of The Book of Ephraim (Merrill’s version of Dante’s encounter with his ancestor in the fifteenth canto of the Paradiso), that mankind is “Doomed, sick, selfish, dumb as shit…. They talk about how decent, how refined—/ All it means is, they can afford somehow / To watch what’s happening, and not to mind”—that complaint, though crude, is also just, including its implied rebuke of the nephew’s uncle or the uncle’s sensibility. And those Alpha Men—don’t they, after all, really presuppose the final eclipse of that sensibility and the culture it so insouciantly represents?
Merrill is a happy elegist in an equivocal time, with an unspoilable delight in art and beauty, in his hymn to the recuperative powers of “love and loss.” “Childless,” and so outside the mainstream, yet “scissoring and mending,” he’s a maker nonetheless; “shy” with “ideas,” but protean in inventiveness, against the evanescent, the “changing lights,” he pits himself and sees in language, the mastery of the word in a disordered world, “the life raft of language,” his own best hope, and ours, discovering himself, again and again, as other poets have done, “more truly and more strange.”
June 16, 1983