Book Review

Merrill’s Intimations

James Merrill (1926–95) was often derided as the Ri¢hie Ri¢h of twentieth-century American poetry. Poets and critics either resented him for being rich, or excused him for the accident of being rich and marveled at what he accomplished, or claimed to admire what he accomplished and secretly resented him for being rich. There’s no one like a poet for pure jealousy of another’s advantage. None of this was Merrill’s fault though he felt the difference acutely all his life and made dignified reparations through his Ingram Merrill Foundation, which supported all kinds of artists, some of them in times of extreme distress. Few modern poets are read for their poetry alone; the backstory is always part of any critical discourse, and Merrill’s back story puts him at a bizarre disadvantage compared to other poets of his generation—from the great formalists like Hecht, Wilbur and Justice to such figures as Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov and John Ashbery. It’s too easy to think of him as someone who made his life and art without any real obstacles—as if his path were paved with rose petals.

A prolific and significant poet who, for some, needs to be read in small doses, Merrill can be hard to love. Confronted with the mammoth new biography by Langdon Hammer, readers might be excused for balking and backing away.[1] No need to do so. Hammer, an editor at The American Scholar and Chair of Yale’s English department, is an expert biographer. The book might have been better if it were shorter, but even at painstaking length (nearly 900 pages including the notes), it often feels shapely and elegant. Hammer’s foreword comprises a mini-biography; you can read its fifteen pages on their own to get a good sense of what follows. His thesis, implied by the subtitle “Life and Art,” is that the nexus of these two entities was especially important for Merrill. He was a poet for whom the childhood wound of a broken home and the struggle to live as a gay man before it became relatively acceptable in society lay at the brittle core, yet in his art and his person he held deep emotion at bay. Indeed, the whimsy-turned-seriousness of the Ouija board—his method of communing with the dead in some of his most significant writing—was important largely as an escape from ego and the self (and his circle of friends) as subjects. The biographer Richard Holmes has written, “The public and private life do, in the end, make sense of each other,” and one feels the truth of this remark in Merrill’s case.

However he transmuted it in poetry, Merrill’s life was very much his subject matter. This is true of many modern writers, including W. B. Yeats, a model not only for using the personal in art, but also for developing one’s own whimsical metaphysics. Yeats winks at us in disguise from a woodcut in A Vision, his system of symbols derived from his wife’s automatic writing, while Merrill’s formidable trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover, works through punning and allusive narratives to a version of the afterlife—how we relate to and live among the dead. In The Book of Ephraim, the first and most compelling volume of this trilogy, the eponymous ghost puts it this way:


Yeats’s metaphysics has a wacky interest of its own, quite aside from the great poems it made possible. I’m not sure the same can be said for Merrill’s, which was based on the flimsiest of pretexts—the Ouija board. Still, a lot of fine invention came out of his dialogues with the dead, usually performed in partnership with his lifelong companion, David Jackson, and what they approached together was a realm of spirits, reincarnation and the imaginal.

But while Yeats can be a thorny and elaborate poet, we don’t remember him only for that. He could also speak directly as a man in conflict, often with himself. If Merrill seems less compelling by comparison, it might be the degree to which he embroidered his effects, unable to let loose in a soulful voice. Critics usually call him Mozartian, which is meant to appreciate embellishment, but Mozart could do tragedy and so many other emotional states. Merrill had trouble finding the common humanity in himself, or conveying it in poetic terms. This might be why his long relationship with Jackson, a failed writer and more ordinary man, never stopped being the anchor of his adult life even when the two took different lovers. One thinks of Auden’s early sonnet:


With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden. . . .


Like Yeats, Auden never lost the ability to speak in lines of memorable humanity, the very quality I too often miss in Merrill, even as I try to admire his ambition and architecture. The strange achievement of Hammer’s biography is the insight it provides into a life and an oeuvre many readers might find constrained.


James Merrill—Jimmy as his friends still like to call him—was born on the cusp of the Great Depression to one of the richest men in the country. His father was Charlie Merrill, co-founder of Merrill-Lynch, small of stature but larger than life on the page. Few poets have as colorful a childhood as this, and Hammer clearly relishes the father’s dynamism. Charlie lived hard and high on the hog. He drank, smoked, womanized and sported at all levels of American society—an engine of activity that finally sputtered and died in 1956 while his poet son was away traveling in Japan. Merrill’s mother, Hellen Ingram, was Charlie’s second wife, so a cluster of half-siblings kept some things whole as others fell apart. As Southerners transplanted to Long Island, the Merrills maintained a sort of Gone with the Wind household complete with black servants and conspicuous ostentation:

In all that he did, [Charlie Merrill] was aware of the figure he cut. He was the banker as Jazz Age celebrity in plus fours or a double-breasted Van Sickle suit, a confessed hedonist and the hardest worker going. He was an innovator in business, always ready to try out a new idea, who loved the Old South and English aristocracy. A southern gentleman and a Yankee entrepreneur, he stepped on toes and took pride in his handsome apologies. Bent on making money, he gave it away freely to friends, family, and institutions; though he never graduated from the college, he became one of Amherst’s leading donors. . . . A loyal friend, he divorced three wives. “I am,” he said, “a mixture of Santa Claus, Lady Bountiful, the Good Samaritan, Baron Richthofen, J. P. Morgan, [and] Casanova[.] I am tender as a woman, brave as a lion, and can fight like a cat.”

Having invested in Safeway supermarkets, Charlie found a hedge against the Crash of 1929. Even in hard times, life in the family’s mansion (partly designed by Stanford White) must have felt like one long Gatsby party:

On summer weekends, Hellen brought in Broadway: the songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, for instance, or the actresses Helen Hayes and Gloria Swanson (the latter became Hellen’s good friend). In the music room one morning, she listened while Gertrude Lawrence and George Gershwin (for Jews were welcome as guests and entertainers) worked up the hit song “Oh Kay!”

A heady upbringing for anyone, let alone a poet. “Jimmy” Merrill was not athletic (though he loved swimming all his life), so his parents encouraged his interest in the arts. They bought him books, tickets to the opera, and approved his early attempts at writing. In fact, one of the most remarkable anecdotes about Charlie Merrill has to do with his secret influence on modern literature. He “had other prominent associates, such as John M. Woolsey, the judge who ruled in 1933 that James Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene and thus could be imported and sold in the U.S. In his landmark decision, Woolsey referred to two unnamed men of the world to whom he’d shown the book to test its effect on them. One of them was Charlie, who evidently gave Ulysses the thumbs-up.”

Merrill’s parents were manifestly racist and (in some circumstances) anti-Semitic, and the clubbish, protected atmosphere of his childhood rankled. Then came the divorce. As Hammer puts it, “Compared to other forms of suffering and deprivation, the breakup of a wealthy child’s home may not count for very much. But for James Merrill, it opened a rift in the world that would never be repaired. Divorce, far less common at the time than it is today, was stigmatizing for children as well as their parents; to be the child of a ‘broken home’ amounted to a diagnosis.” Art became increasingly a refuge from life, and with time a sustained effort to make sense of it. If Merrill’s early poetry feels icy and clever, it’s because art was a protective cover, an escape. The problem of his life and his art, as Hammer points out several times, was to let feeling through for creatures other than himself.

He was lucky in his prep school teachers, including Thomas Johnson, the editor of Emily Dickinson’s poems. At Amherst he developed a fascination with Proust, writing his most sustained piece of critical prose as an undergraduate on the French novelist, which, together with an early interest in Rilke, foreshadows the roles that memory and mysticism would play in his work. While at Amherst, Merrill also experienced his first sustained love affair, with an instructor named Kimon Friar:

Friar’s Greek heritage was part of what attracted Merrill to him. With Merrill, Friar assumed the ancient Greek role of the eromenos, the mentor and lover who helps the erastes, a beautiful youth, to discover the passion for knowledge through their erotic relation­ship.[2] Only those classical roles were being updated with inspiration from the same-sex love poems of C. P. Cavafy, the modern poet from Alexandria whom Friar introduced to Merrill through his own translations. Jimmy knew ancient Greek well; he’d studied Homer, the lyric poets, and Plato at Amherst. Now Friar was teaching him the demotic.

Though the relationship soon dissolved in rancor and complaint, it was Merrill’s introduction to what became his second country, Greece, which he visited with Friar. The connection also softened some of the coldness in Merrill’s early poems; for example, here is “A Renewal,” published in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959):

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.

It’s one of Merrill’s best early poems, striking for its fusion (or confusion) of hardness and vulnerability.

Once his parents became aware of his liaison with Friar, a family crisis erupted, largely due to the fear that Merrill’s sexuality might be noticed publicly. Charlie Merrill even considered using his more dubious connections to take out a hit on his son’s lover but soon thought better of it. For readers interested in modern Greek literature, Hammer’s writing about the Friar affair is particularly involving. Friar was a groundbreaking translator, one of the figures who first made a wealth of Greek poetry available to English readers, and while his translations are often crude—in his versions all the modern Greek poets sound essentially the same—he helped pave the way for broader recognition of a superb literature. Merrill himself had some impact upon contemporary Athenian society through his friendships with Greek artists, and his translations of poems by Cavafy, though few, are among the most beautiful done by anyone.

Eventually, Greece would prove a land of sexual vacationing for Merrill and Jackson—they owned a house in the wealthy Athenian neighborhood of Kolonaki and took lovers among young Greek men, but his relationship to the people and language went much deeper than that implies. With its ancient and continuous literary tradition, Greece seems to many of us a place in which language and life are beautifully melded. As Merrill put it in one of his best poems, “After Greece,”

Light into the olive entered
And was oil. Rain made the huge pale stones
Shine from within. The moon turned his hair white
Who next stepped from between the columns,
Shielding his eyes. All through
The countryside were old ideas
Found lying open to the elements.
Of the gods’ houses only
A minor premise here and there
Would be balancing the heavens of fixed stars
Upon a Doric capital.

The poem ends, “May I / Also survive its meanings, and my own.” Refined, sensual and subtly questioning, it demonstrates how Greece was a place in which he could make connections unavailable elsewhere. Once he and David Jackson became a couple in their long-lasting and quite open “marriage,” they spent part of every year in Greece, where their friends included Auden’s grieving partner, Chester Kallman, as well as such figures as Alan Ansen and Rachel Hadas. Merrill was helpful to Greek writers like Vassilis Vassilikos, author of Z among other books, and some of his most engaged friendships were with Greeks. It was as if he had found a country in which, displaced, he could be the artist and person he envisaged. By contrast, his apartment above a store in Stonington, Connecticut, had an aspect of deliberate isolation.


Even in the capable hands of a biographer like Hammer, the long catalogue of Merrill’s loves becomes tiresome at times. More than once I was tempted to dismiss Merrill with the “Ri¢hie Ri¢h” label, bored by his narcissism and the arbitrary flow of his relations—“Jimmy” getting his way more often than not. Merrill himself was aware of the problem of effete shallowness. His first public poetry reading was at Amherst, where he performed alongside Richard Wilbur. Five years his senior, Wilbur had tempered his soul in the foxholes of Italy, and Merrill felt the difference: “He sounded to himself ‘nasal, educated, world-weary as only those without any experience of the world can be.’” If the poet is a means, a medium for language and experience, then the education of the poet’s soul, as it were, forms a crucial aspect of that medium. Among Merrill’s most famous poems, “The Broken Home” is an assured sonnet sequence, but somehow locked in itself and, to me at least, not quite able to dramatize its emotions. A slighter poem like “Charles on Fire” paradoxically conveys a less ego-driven vision, building from the image of a man at a party whose brandy glass shatters, spilling the ignited alcohol:

. . . Charles’s glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. “It couldn’t matter less,”
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.

Merrill’s best work involves intimations of immortality and the grief of human dailiness. He’s not an intuitive genius like Lawrence, not a poet of history like Lowell, not a maker of hard, plain, revealing surfaces like his good friend Elizabeth Bishop, not a writer of unforgettable lines and public discourse like Auden. He’s an elaborate maker—sometimes of unusually long, meditative lyrics or narratives like “From the Cupola,” another of his ghost stories. In the moments that break through to something more, I find myself most eager to follow him:

Thank you, Psyche. I should think those panes
Were just about as clear as they can be.
It’s time I turned my light on. Child, leave me.
Here on the earth we loved alone remains

One shrunken amphitheater, look, to moon
Hugely above. Ranked glintings from within
Hint that a small articulate crowd has been
Gathered for days now, waiting. None too soon,

Whether in lower or in upper case,
Will come the Moment for the metal of each
To sally forth—once more into the breach!
Beyond it, glory lies, a virgin space

Acrackle in white hunger for the word.

As Merrill ages in the biography, one begins to feel a tragic distance between the laurels heaped on his head and a sense that his art remains insufficient, too tied to a private realm of reference. No matter how much he revised his poems, he rarely made them seem, in Yeats’s phrase, “a moment’s thought.” Most readers will prefer a judicious selection to wading through the posthumous Collected Poems (2002), edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. The gems exist, but also a large number of poems that just don’t speak with enough urgency. Merrill’s lack of engagement with his tumultuous times remains curious—dignified in his refusal to go in for self-aggrandizing politics, but also discreet to the point of aloofness. His novels and plays are minor works, he was not a critic of note, and of his prose works only the fine memoir, A Different Person (1994), was truly successful. Hammer rightly points out that The Changing Light at Sandover is remarkable partly as a portrait of a gay marriage—its rituals sustaining through the sexual revolution and distantly acknowledged social change. But that would hardly satisfy Merrill, who disliked identity politics in literature and must have known the trilogy was a muddle. He believed in aesthetic verities. “The poet is a man choosing the words he lives by,” he remarked. In his favorite artists he appreciated “The joy of workmanship made visible.” He believed in poetry as making as well as inspiration, and it’s his more inspired works like The Book of Ephraim (with its elegant abcedarian order) and a handful of shorter poems that seem destined to stick around.

The AIDS crisis brings Hammer’s biography to its sad conclusion. Friends infected with the virus included the critic David Kalstone, whose death was a shock to many just beginning to comprehend the breadth of the epidemic. At Kalstone’s funeral, Merrill read “a lyric paragraph” from his friend’s diary:

Tonight, standing in the Barbaro window, I think must be the most beautiful night in the world. Cool. Soft vanishing sunlight and slow shadows on the Grand Canal. One deep sun spot. Being alone. Oh, to open my heart as I have not for years—Venice, my beautiful Venice. The heart aches as the light passes. The town is full of beacons, each with its own hour—I have never known it so beguiling as this summer—the lightning and hail of the other evening . . . Oh, never not to return!

It’s the kind of simple human voice Merrill himself too often held at bay. The poet Thom Gunn wrote much more compellingly about AIDS than Merrill ever allowed himself to do [3].

Like his heterosexual father, Merrill had been prodigious in his pursuit of sex. As friends around him began to die in large numbers, he told no one of his fears but quietly researched the disease. Eventually, sensing he was ill, he held the truth at bay as long as he could. Merrill’s private nature prevented him from coming out about anything—his sexuality or the disease.

No one mentioned publicly that Jimmy had had AIDS, and most of his friends and relatives were unaware of the fact. He’d asked McClatchy to help him keep his diagnosis a secret, to “cover” for him, and Sandy continued to do so after his death. It was in 2001, when he felt he’d kept his promise long enough, that McClatchy published an essay about his friend’s struggle with HIV.

His many loves—Friar, Strato Mouflouzélis, the painter David McIntosh and the actor Peter Hooten among them—were important at stages of his development and decline, but it was the sadder and more ordinary David Jackson who gave him the deepest experience of continuity and loss. There was the mix of hypocrisy and love in his relationship with his mother, who had never been at ease with her son’s sexuality and who outlived him, dying at 102. And there were relatives like his nephew, Robin Magowan, a poet and translator, with whom Merrill maintained close ties. But readers of this exhaustively detailed biography might inevitably feel that something was left unfulfilled in Merrill—that his world travels had not been pilgrimages so much as restless, disconnected urges.

Merrill’s best writing conveys the presence of death in everyday relations. As a poet of the ephemeral, he belongs with the Romantics, perhaps most with Byron in his preference for wit over emotion. But when his friendly ghost Ephraim calls heaven “THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING,” one senses the poet has found more than himself and touched something of the deep heart’s core.


[1] JAMES MERRILL: Life and Art, by Langdon Hammer. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.00.

[2] In one of his rare errors, Hammer actually has these Greek terms reversed. The erastes is the older male, the eromenos the younger.

[3] For a contrary view, see Moira Egan’s very good essay, “Techne in Textiles: Merrill’s ‘Investiture at Cecconi’s,’” Contemporary Poetry Review, 21 November 2013. Gregory Dowling’s introduction to the issue is also eloquent and judicious.