James Merrill began his public career as a poet at twenty-five, four years after he graduated from Amherst, with the exquisitely crafted, tautly controlled lyrics in his First Poems (1951). His style gradually relaxed over the next twenty-five years, but he remained committed to his early elegance and virtuosity. Then, in 1976, he published Divine Comedies, a book that included a long poem, “The Book of Ephraim,” unlike anything he had written before. It was the product of twenty years of séances he had conducted together with David Jackson, once his lover, now his companion, in which, using a Ouija board, they seemed to receive messages from spirits of the dead, some of which Merrill transcribed into the poem. He followed this with two even longer poems based on spirit messages, and later gathered all three into a sprawling, otherworldly epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), which seemed to issue from a sensibility entirely different from that of the precise young man who wrote First Poems.
Langdon Hammer’s lucid, sympathetic biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, makes clear that from the start, long before he began taking dictation from the spirits, Merrill was writing poems in which imagined words were spoken by inhuman voices. In one poem, a mirror wishes it could answer those who look into it. The mirror contrasts its narrow symmetries—the product of reflection—with the random sufferings visible through the window at the far side of the room:
If ever I feel curious
As to what others endure,
Across the parlor you provide examples,
Wide open, sunny, of everything I am
“You,” the mirror tells the window, “embrace a whole world without once caring/To set it in order.” Merrill set another poem in a hall of mirrors where a real man and woman “creak about” while their “million likenesses” move nimbly, “masterfully aligned.”
In their early days with the Ouija board, Merrill and Jackson maneuvered large and small mirrors, hoping to see the spirit they encountered in their séances; they saw only each other, but the spirit later told them that he had been looking back, seeing but unseen. Uncanny exchanges occur between the otherwise separate realms of imagination and life. At the end of “Lost in Translation,” Merrill half-remembers himself at eleven, keeping one piece of a rented wooden jigsaw puzzle when the puzzle went back to the shop. In effect, the poem suggests, he refused wholeness to art; since then pieces have gone missing, in occult retribution, from the puzzles of real life: “a house torn down,” a lover’s “ruin.”
Merrill’s poems throughout are glittering products of adult sophistication, polyglot learning, and ironic self-consciousness. His style extended from mannerism (“blond hair/Flossing a comb”) to spoonerism (“swirls before pine”). Poetic artifice was his natural voice. Puns freed him to walk barefoot:
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.
His poetry was unique in its combination of, on one hand, an adult’s learned knowingness about the real world of suffering where friends die young, where parents abandon each other and their child, where cities and nature are perpetually ravaged, and, on the other hand, a child’s magical wonder at a world of spirits where, among other improbabilities, often discovered in his hours at the Ouija board, a dead financier is reborn as a greengrocer’s child, a spirit-peacock explains the universe, love is endless, and no one dies.
Merrill was praised and rebuked for his aestheticism, his love of wordplay, artifice, and allusion. When he won the Bollingen Prize in 1973, The New York Times was provoked enough to print an unsigned editorial protesting the honor granted to “a hermetic cultivation of one’s sensibility and a fastidious manipulation of received forms.” But Merrill’s poems always pointed toward depths of feeling beneath their surfaces. He took pleasure, he said, in the poems of a young imitator; then he continued:
It is a pleasure bright & fresh as paint, and (finally) as thin as paint. It puzzles me, speaking as a practitioner who believes in entertaining surfaces, the esthetic wrongness of overtly important subject-matter, etc, to find myself asking for more than this particular brand of enchantment supplies.
“Overtly important” is the telling phrase here. Merrill’s subject matter was always morally and emotionally urgent, and he only pretended to be covert about it.
Merrill’s very rich father separated from his mother when he was eleven and they were divorced two years later. He recurred to the divorce and its aftermath throughout his life. He had “issued from a broken home.” “The Broken Home” was the title he used for a sonnet sequence. In “18 West 11th Street” his childhood home is literally broken, blown up by student radicals making bombs in the basement. Something is always breaking in Merrill’s poems, and only the poesis of art can put it together again. At the heart of his aestheticism was his deepest and most persistent belief, his magical sense that it is not the artist who shapes a work of art but the powers behind the mirror, the spirits of the dead, the forces latent in the words that choose the poet as their medium. They guide his hand and restore what he has broken; they judge and forgive:
We are kept from shattering to bits
By the electron hearts, voices and wits
Of our dead friends….
Elsewhere “the figure in the mirror” reminds him that they both ask from dreams the tact and depths missing from their lives:
Admit we have
Designs on the same backwardly emerging
Notion rich in dream-deposits, raw
Dignity, circumspection—all that we lack.
In the closing lines of The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill regains the broken past, but only in the bodiless symmetries of art. He finds himself in an unseen otherworldly mansion, the ideal image of his parents’ house, whose “grave proportions…tell me where I am:/In the old ballroom of the Broken Home.” He is about to begin reading his poem to the spirits who dictated it, whose work it is.
“Poetry made me who I am,” Merrill said to a friend. Langdon Hammer quotes this on the first page of his biography. Merrill told much of his life story—its outline and dramatic moments—in his verse, plays, and fiction, starting with a roman à clef about his family, The Seraglio. In 1959, at thirty-three, he read Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and began writing poems explicitly about himself and his friends. Hammer’s biography shows how pervasively Merrill reshaped reality to serve his art, shifting events from one person or continent to another. It also shows how insistently he portrayed himself as less loving and generous than he was, rebuking himself for the “part of me” that “remained cold and withdrawn,” for his “heart of ice.”
This self-portrait was not the product of false modesty: another of Merrill’s deepest unspoken beliefs was that a committed and enduring love, like the love that Hammer portrays between Merrill and David Jackson, was inexpressible in a poem, while ironic coldness was never at a loss for words.
James Merrill’s mother was born Hellen Ingram, daughter of a Florida businessman; her grandmother’s name had the same odd spelling. After high school she worked as a society journalist. Merrill’s father was Charles Merrill, son of a Florida doctor too impoverished to buy medical equipment that could have saved his three-year-old daughter from dying of diphtheria. Charles Merrill founded the Safeway supermarket chain, then cofounded the Merrill Lynch investment firm in 1915, and was spectacularly rich when he divorced his first wife to marry Hellen Ingram. James was born a year later, in 1926.
Merrill “liked to say he was glad he was born to ‘poor parents,’” Hammer reports, “by which he meant people whose values were formed before they had money.” Like Lord Byron, an earlier poet-aristocrat, Merrill seemed always on the move to exotic places, equally at home with the louche, the artistic, and the rich. Also like Byron, Merrill was privately driven by a bourgeois work ethic, rising at dawn to labor all day over a stanza, sharply disdainful of his friends’ laziness and inertia.
Merrill never cared to know how much money his father had put into his trust fund, and ignored the quarterly reports sent by account-keeping relatives. Like a fairy-tale prince, he knew only that his wealth was inexhaustible. To smooth the task of giving it away to artists, writers, dancers, musicians, magazines, museums, schools, and theater groups, he established the Ingram Merrill Foundation. He remarried his parents in the name he chose for the foundation; the foundation’s bounty was the unending wedding feast.
In Merrill’s first surviving poem, “Looking at Mummy,” written when he was six, he leads a pet dog to a bedroom where his mother is asleep, looks past the “do-not-disturb” sign on the door, and sees “the bed/Where that pretty head lay.” Retelling the incident years later in “The Broken Home,” he changes the story: it was the dog who led him to the bedroom, a nonhuman power already guiding him toward hidden knowledge.
His mother, desperate to maintain appearances, hoped to evade or suppress any hint of her son’s homosexuality. She destroyed a cache of love letters from his desk, claiming she was protecting him from exposure by thieves. He later wrote (for these pages) an essay on the French poet Francis Ponge in which his unstated theme was language’s insistence on revealing erotic secrets of its own: a pun “betrays the hidden wish of words” by touching “upon a secret, fecund place in language itself.” Ponge, he wrote, “may be the first poet ever to expose so openly the machinery of a poem, to present his revisions, blind alleys, critical asides, and accidental felicities as part of a text perfected, as it were, without ‘finish.’” Merrill did the same in poems with footnote-afterthoughts and stanzas that revised earlier stanzas. His novel The (Diblos) Notebook pretended to reproduce a novelist’s jottings, complete with false starts and deletions, as if to expose the primal scene of writing.
Merrill’s father speaks briefly from the dead in The Changing Light at Sandover. His mother, still alive, has no speaking part, but Merrill explains:
Of course she’s here
Throughout, the breath drawn after every line,
Essential to its making as to mine….
Hammer describes Hellen Ingram as a theatrically self-conscious beauty whose sexuality was an instrument of control. Merrill’s father was remote in other ways: mostly away on business, in bed with his wife’s best friend when home, proud of his literary son but formal and correct in his rare contacts with him, finally decamping with the woman who became his third wife. Opaque to his parents, Merrill felt opaque in himself, visible only as a surface.
The séances began when a friend gave Merrill a Ouija board as a kitsch present for his twenty-seventh birthday. At the time, the Ouija board was vastly popular as a parlor game, but it had been invented sixty years earlier as a serious means of communicating with the dead, one of the many flowerings of the spiritualist craze of the nineteenth century that also produced the spirit photography believed in by Arthur Conan Doyle, table-turning, spirit-rappings, and the automatic writing through which W.B. Yeats received instruction from spirits who guided his wife’s hand for seven garrulous years. Spiritualism emerged at a historical moment when science seemed to have emptied the universe of meaning and reduced the soul to an illusion; it promised something like the universal meaning and personal immortality once promised by traditional religions, without their annoyingly moral demands.
A Ouija board is a wooden surface with twenty-six letters, ten numerals, and the words Yes (oui, ja), No, and Good-bye printed or drawn on it. It is placed on a table together with a small object—typically a piece of wood, though Merrill and Jackson used a teacup—that serves as a pointer. One or more people place their hands lightly on the pointer and speak a question aloud; the object answers by skittering across the board, apparently of its own accord, stopping briefly at letters and numbers that spell out words and sentences:
“Is someone there?”
We whispered, fingers light on Willowware,
When the thing moved. Our breathing stopped. The cup,
Glazed zombie of itself, was on the prowl
Moving, but dully, incoherently,
Possessed, as we should soon enough be told,
By one or another of the myriads
Who hardly understand, through the compulsive
Reliving of their deaths, that they have died….
For the “medium” gently moving the cup—as for Yeats’s wife practicing automatic writing—the effect may seem uncannily real. He may have no sense that he himself is guiding the cup with unconscious muscular movements, just as, in recent years, “facilitators” convince themselves that the autistic person whose arm they touch gently is choosing the words that his hand spells out on a computer keyboard or a Ouija-like “alphabet board.”
While the cup moved under Merrill and Jackson’s left hands, Merrill wrote down its messages in rapid capital letters with his right, excited by the sense that he and Jackson had inherited the conjugal spiritualism of Georgie and William Yeats. Yeats’s spirits gave him material that he transformed into the prose and poems of A Vision (1925) in the way that Merrill’s spirits now gave him material for The Changing Light at Sandover. Yeats’s spirits knew all about his earlier writings. Merrill’s guiding spirit was a first-century polyglot cosmopolitan named Ephraim, a wholly imaginary figure who like Merrill had “issued from a broken home—/The first of several facts to coincide.”
Early twentieth-century spiritualism ranged from shabby boardinghouse séances to the artistic glories of Yeats’s Byzantium poems. Yeats and Merrill both thought they had half-perceived, half-created the spirits who spoke to them, that an artist’s greatest task and greatest achievement was communion with an unseen world. When literal-minded readers asked Merrill if he believed the spirit world was real, he usually answered yes, partly to annoy the questioner, partly because it was true. With part of himself, he knew perfectly well that the spirits were artifacts of his and Jackson’s unconscious minds, but they were nonetheless real to his imagination.
Shortly after he began using the Ouija board, Merrill wrote to a friend: “I cannot calculate how much I must have suffered in my mind from the fear of absolute annihilation.” His terror of death, Hammer writes, “was a fear not only of personal extinction, but of a meaningless universe, and of the despair that came with such a vision.” The spirits had relieved him of this fear, had made everything, Merrill said, “so much more glorious and worth living for.”
Bien-pensant critics condemn aestheticism—the conviction that art is the greatest good, that it justifies any sacrifice of the self and others—as a frivolous retreat from the realities of suffering. This misses the point. The aesthete has no wish to escape suffering, but wishes instead to transform it into something elegant or beautiful, often by intensifying its pain. When Merrill complains that Ephraim finds something witty to say even about a gruesome death, the Ouija board answers: “ah my dears/i am not laughing i will simply not shed tears.”
The first aesthetes on record are Helen and Paris in the Iliad. Paris knows all about deliberately intensifying suffering. He left the battlefield after a humiliating defeat, he says, only in order to satisfy his “desire, on being routed, to taste grief to the full.” Helen knows all about suffering transformed into art. She is first seen weaving a tapestry with scenes of the battles fought for her sake, and her fate, “all of misery,” she says later, was decreed for the sake of art, “given by Zeus that we may live in song for men to come.” Merrill paraphrases Helen in “Matinées,” a poem reflecting on his early love for opera and its grand emotional displays:
The point thereafter was to arrange for one’s
Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals,
Chiefly in order to make song of them.
And in the next lines he tells a friend that what matters to him now is not the passion but the song: “You and I, caro, seldom/Risk the real thing any more.”
The men whom Merrill fell in love with in his twenties tended to be poets and scholars who could guide a young aesthete’s progress. One was Hans Lodeizen, a Dutch poet whom Merrill revered with unrequited passion. In 1950, when Lodeizen died of leukemia at twenty-six, Merrill began writing an elegy. Before this, he had crafted his verse with exquisite symmetry and care. Now, he said, an elegy began writing itself without his willing it, giving its own voice to his suffering:
A poem began to take form—or rather, for once, not to. Lines varied in length, end words rhymed or didn’t. The phrases, like river stones, learned their own shape and smoothness from the current of grief that swept through me.
The poem ends in a vision of “that starry land/Under the world, which no one sees/Without a death,” the unseen world that later spoke through the Ouija board.
In 1953, when he was twenty-seven, Merrill fell in love with David Jackson, a would-be novelist, outgoing and enthusiastic, four years his senior, with a gift for domesticity and a love of fantasy that often took the form of fibbing. They moved into an apartment in a commercial building in Stonington, Connecticut, where they began experimenting with the Ouija board. Their sexual relationship lasted only a few years; Merrill fell in love with a series of other men; but he and Jackson still shared their home together in Stonington, then also in Athens and Key West.
Soon after he bought a house in Athens, Merrill was seized by a grand passion for Strato Mouflouzélis, a young demotic Greek who exploited him for years with cheerfully improbable lies. Merrill persisted for the sake of chills and fevers that he could turn into song. He let Strato believe the “fiction” that he, Merrill, was “easy to fool, impossible to hurt.” It was all theater, each performing a conventional role. From Strato Merrill “asked no favor but to act the part.” He summed it up in his diary: “I preferred Illusion to reality. I said so. And I got what I asked for.”
In the midst of these operatic excitements, Merrill’s love for Jackson persisted in unheard, almost invisible depths. In Hammer’s account, Merrill keeps reassuring himself that Jackson knows everything that Merrill couldn’t say:
We must by now be used to the way our time together passes, without any of the essentials being said, foremost among which is that I love you dearly + wish I knew better how to show it.
Hammer writes of Merrill’s “inability to find love and sex in the same person,” something Merrill guiltily traced to his homosexuality, despite the parallel example of his philandering thrice-married father. For Merrill, the glittering excitement of sex could never coincide in life with the quiet depths of love. Art was the one realm where “entertaining surfaces” and covertly “important subject-matter” could exist in unending harmony.
Merrill was witty and gracious among friends, cool and correct among strangers. The one person whose presence reduced him to tongue-tied silence, Hammer reports, was W.H. Auden, eighteen years his senior. Much of Merrill’s later work was a defense against Auden’s insistence that poetry, no matter how artfully expressed, must never deviate from statements of plain fact; that it must prefer moral reality to aesthetic illusion; that it may express desires for things that are real, but must never wish for things that no one can have, like life after death; that a moral universe needs no art to give it meaning. Around the time Merrill took up the Ouija board in terror of “absolute annihilation,” Auden was writing a poem that refused all hopeful illusions about death:
For the end, for me as for cities,
Is total absence: what comes to be
Must go back into non-being…
Auden died in 1973. Three months later, after years of false starts in prose, Merrill began writing the verse of “The Book of Ephraim.” Later in the Sandover trilogy, Auden’s spirit happily renounces the “diffy* moral strictures” and everything else he had believed in life; “so wrong.” Merrill and Jackson, their hands joined over the Ouija board, receive “love-letters from the other world.” In the spirits of Auden and their glamorously stoic friend Maria Mitsotáki they find loving parental figures who love each other as well: “Affection blossoms” between them, “never/Once excluding theirs for us.”
“The Book of Ephraim,” as Hammer claims, is “Merrill’s single best poem,” a generous, capacious masterwork in twenty-six parts headed A through Z, about everything from the inner world of the unconscious (it includes a psychiatrist’s explanation of the poem’s own fantasy) to the outer world of violence and politics. The opening lines pretend to apologize for the triumphant artistry that the poem displays everywhere else:
Admittedly I err by undertaking
This in its present form. The baldest prose
Reportage was called for, that would reach
The widest public in the shortest time.
This signals that the poem is Merrill’s response to Auden’s equally expansive “Letter to Lord Byron” (1936), a verse letter addressed (without expecting a reply) to someone dead, in which the poet renounces personal fantasy and political illusion, and accepts unflattering truths. Like Merrill’s poem, Auden’s opens with an apology, places “take” as the last stressed syllable in its first line, and glances at the poet’s public:
Forgive, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new….
Ephraim says relatively little in the poem that bears his name, mostly prompting Merrill with subjects he can talk about in his own voice. Much of Ephraim’s language seems to have been reshaped or invented for the sake of the poem. This changes in what became the next two parts of the trilogy, first published as separate books, Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant. The dark splendors of “The Book of Ephraim” recur in a few well-crafted lyrics, but these second and third parts consist largely of windily abstract speeches, printed entirely in small capitals, that read like raw transcripts of Ouija board sessions.
In the course of these speeches, a multitude of voluble spirits teach new-age lessons about science, philosophy, Atlantis, Akhnaton, and the creative work of God B (short for Biology). One speech, attributed to Auden, stands out from the rest in its deep evocations and taut, rhymed dignity; it introduces the “rosebrick manor” that the poem later names Sandover, where Merrill finds himself in “the old ballroom of the Broken Home.” Years later, Merrill said he had written Auden’s speech himself, unprompted by the Ouija board.
Merrill seems to have published these two unwieldy, self-parodying, and (Hammer’s word) loopy books as gifts to his fellow medium. As Merrill’s friends reported privately at the time, the spirit messages in these books were—in unspecified ways—largely Jackson’s words, written in Jackson’s voice. Jackson had failed to get his novels into print, but now these two books made him a published author assured of glittering prizes to be won under Merrill’s name: Mirabell won the National Book Award, the trilogy the National Book Critics Circle Award. Merrill imagined he had spent his life sacrificing love, with its quietly undramatic depth, for the operatic elegance of art. Now, in his fifties, by putting his name to two ungainly books written partly by Jackson, he sacrificed his art for love.
Merrill died in 1995, Jackson six years later. They were buried side by side in Stonington, where they began.
James Merrill: Life and Art fills nine hundred closely printed pages. The first fifty seem to offer a prospect of unfiltered, irrelevant detail, but it then becomes clear that Hammer has been artful and selective from the start, choosing facts and events that later reappear, transformed, in Merrill’s poems, novels, letters, and talk. Merrill made this possible by giving all his papers, without restriction, to Washington University in St. Louis, which he chose because one of its librarians took the trouble to ask.
Hammer convincingly admires almost everything in Merrill’s life and art, but is also judicious, punctuating his praise with sharp momentary rebukes: Merrill’s Greek lover Strato “was entering a world of plenty where anyone was welcome, at least once or twice.” The subject of one of Merrill’s elegies “vanished back into the poet’s psyche as abruptly as he had arisen, having been of use.”
Merrill’s generosity with money was widely known, though no one outside his circle guessed that it was as vast as Hammer describes. Hammer also brings to light Merrill’s generosity with care, warmth, and time, the hours he spent at the bedside of friends dying of AIDS or old age, the pages of advice he sent to young poets who showed him their poems, the energy he put into persuading couples to maintain a faithful relation of the kind he never had. The spirits, he wrote, are “clamoring overhead,/…for a commitment.” “You know my horror of Broken Homes,” he said in a letter, explaining away the urgency of his concern.
In the depths of himself Merrill found cold indifference. In the resplendent world of the dead and the silent world behind the mirror he saw faithfulness, compassion, and love. He seems never to have realized that what he saw was his reflection.