A lyrical and mystical poet often compared to W. H. Auden and William Butler Yeats, James Merrill (1926-1995) is best known for his series of poems inspired by the automatic writing and messages of spirit guides through the medium of an Ouija board. These poems were collected in The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).
While Merrill's poems are not self-confessional, he used formal poetic structures to blend autobiography with archetype and fable, creating a sense of inner tension and authenticity.
Merrill was born in New York City in 1926, the son of Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch, the stock brokerage. Wealth brought privilege: Merrill was educated at private schools where the written word and poetry were emphasized, and he also had a multi-lingual governess as a young boy who taught him respect for languages. An appreciation for music, especially opera, came early to Merrill, and that dramatic form had a lasting influence on his poetry. Versification was encouraged in the Merrill household, so much so that in Merrill's senior year at Lawrenceville School, his father privately published his first book of poems. Merrill attended Amherst College, where he continued to write poetry, though his studies were interrupted by a year in the infantry during World War II. Returning to Amherst, he published poetry in Poetry and Kenyon Review and completed his thesis on Marcel Proust. Proust, in his fascination with the everyday and with one's own history, would have a lasting influence on Merrill's later poetry. Wealth also meant that Merrill did not have to earn his living from poetry and could live where he wanted as he wanted. Throughout his life, he travelled in Europe extensively, and made homes in Stonington, Connecticut; Athens, Greece; and New York City. With the death of his father, Merrill established the Ingram Merrill Foundation to provide grants to writers and painters. Merrill died of a heart attack in Tucson, Arizona, in 1995.
Merrill's literary product shows a gradual ripening and maturity of form from the first of his published works up through the last. The poems in First Poems (1951) received mixed reviews, and for the next several years, Merrill wrote short stories, a novel, and tried his hand at theater. With The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), Merrill came back to poetry with elegant formal poems that display a cultivated taste in things domestic and in travel. In ways, the poems here chronicle the early life of an American aristocrat, and received the same mixed reviews as his earlier poems. Water Street (1962) continues to chronicle Merrill's life, loves, and travels, but the language is tighter, the verse line more colloquialized. Merrill won his first National Book Award for Nights and Days (1966), a book that takes on Yeats's great theme of wisdom coming from age and dissolution. Fire Screen (1969) and Braving the Elements (1972) continue to demonstrate a developing maturity on Merrill's part. The twin themes of time and eros have been established in his poetry; the formalism is still there, but does not dominate the work; and the elegance has given way to a more gritty stance. Merrill won the Bollingen Prize in 1973 for Braving the Elements. A smooth, conversational narrative style had been established in Merrill's poetry by the early 1970s, paving the way for his major works, Divine Comedies (1976) and Mirabell: Books of Numbers (1978). Merrill and his long-time companion, David Jackson, had been experimenting with a home-made Ouija board since 1955. Whether a folie a deux or a connection to a higher spiritual plane, such activities put Merrill in touch with a spirit guide, Ephraim, who led the poet to a mystical and sacred dialogue reminiscent of a blend of Yeats, Dante, Proust, Byron, and Auden. With these poems—the first of which were twenty years in the writing—Merrill became more than a lyric poet. He fused autobiography and archetype; created an epic approach to his life; and, with Mirabell, developed a scientific/religious metaphor for the meaning and flux of the universe. Merrill won a Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies and a second National Book Award for Mirabell: Books of Numbers. These poems were completed with Scripts for the Pageant (1980). Until his death, Merrill continued to produce poetry of note, as well as a memoir, A Different Person (1993), which reflected not only on his family, but on his homosexuality in relation to his writing.
The accomplishment of James Merrill was his steady growth from gentility to vision; from formal elegance to prophecy and epic poetry. Once he left mere gentility behind and dealt with themes more dramatic and personal, Merrill's poetry took on a weight and importance that brought critical acclaim from all quarters. The sacred books collected in The Changing Light at Sandoverare regarded as a major poetic statement, and Merrill as a metaphysical poet who employed both wit and charm.
Further Reading on James Merrill
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1974; Volume 3, 1975; Volume 6, 1976; Volume 8, 1978; Volume 13, 1980; Volume 18, 1981.
Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus, 1968.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume V: American Poets Since World War II, Gale, 1980.
Kalstone, David, Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Labrie, Ross, Merrill, 1982.
Lehman, David, and Berger, Charles, editors, James Merrill: Essays in Criticism, Cornell University Press, 1982.
Moffett, Judith, Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1984.