- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

When the massive one-volume "Collected Poems" of the late James Merrill (1926-95) appeared in 2001, its author's canonical status was assured. Merrill's career, begun semi-auspiciously with the private publication of his juvenilia (a 16th-birthday gift from his father) had spanned almost an exact half-century of brilliantly sustained achievement.
Admirers of Merrill's poetry (they are legion) cite its technical mastery of rhyme, meter, and diction (evident in even his very early work) and its wide range of subject matter, encompassing descriptions of animals and nature; remembrances of family, friends, and lovers; music, opera, and painting; speculative meditations on philosophical, scientific, and mythological themes; and dramatic narratives focussed on both historical figures and personal experiences, which at their best rival Robert Browning's.
The trajectory of Merrill's life and career reveals a restless intellectual curiosity, and numerous homages to and variations on an impressive variety of literary influences. The Roman poet Horace, Henry James, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and above all Merrill's cher maitre Marcel Proust the subject of his collegiate master's thesis are perhaps the most prominent.
And, as if in response to readers who find his eclectic sensibility a bit too arch and mandarin, there's an ingratiating affection for the simplicity and directness of the classic texts Merrill loved to refashion (memorably expressed in his long poem "The Book of Ephraim," as follows: "Fed/Up so long and variously by/Our age's fancy narrative concoctions,/I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found/In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean by mild old tongues."
As the son of a prosperous stockbroker who became one of the founders of the Merrill, Lynch firm, he grew up affluent, and was able throughout his life to indulge his literary vocation and his love of other art forms and of foreign travel. Whatever inner demons may have complicated Merrill's personal well-being (beginning with the trauma of his parents' divorce when he was 13, and including recurring guilt over his homosexuality and his consequent failure to produce another Merrill heir) were scarcely visible throughout a career studded with accomplishments and honors.
His first mature collection "The Black Swan" (1946) was unanimously acclaimed. Two National Book Awards, Pulitzer, Bollingen, and other prizes greeted such critically successful volumes as "Nights and Days" (1966), "Braving the Elements" (1972), and the exercises in spiritualism (featuring communication with the dead via Ouija Board) collected in "The Changing Light at Sandover" (1982).
Merrill's penchants for arcane and intricate statement make some of his oeuvre indeed forbidding. But the passionate lyrical impulse that underlies his complex investigations of natural and personal phenomena, and bursts forth in phrasing so intuitive and lucid it feels inevitably right (such as his description of "The Black Swan" as no sonorous metaphor, but "A thing in itself, like love, like submarine/Disaster, or the first sound when we wake"), gives his poetry an enduring authority and vitality.
Rather less may be said for Merrill's longer fiction and drama, conveniently assembled in the present volume. His two novels are most interesting for what most readers will infer they're actually saying about James Merrill. "The Seraglio" (1957), for example, analyzes the ongoing arrested development of Francis Tanner, a young Long Islander (as was Merrill) whose sensitivity and inertia are pointedly contrasted to the virile energies of his serially married womanizing father. Incidental characters and character relationships echo both Henry James and "The Great Gatsby," but the novel is, on balance, both tedious and thinly developed.
"The Diblos Notebook" (1965), a National Book Award nominee, is superior. It's a self-reflexive fiction, in which a novel in progress about the relationship of contrasting brothers (one a withdrawn writer, the other an adventurous extrovert) is paralleled by its author's similar relationship with his own brother. It's an often intriguing exploration of the theme of divided and inchoate identity, of further interest for its detailed pictures of Greece (where Merrill and his longtime partner David Jackson frequently resided), and for the deftness with which the writer portrays a creative mind in motion, continuously reconsidering, deleting, and revising the materials of its life.
Merrill had a somewhat surer feel for drama, even if his early plays now seem mannered and opaque. "The Birthday" (1947), unpublished during his lifetime, is a terse one-acter in blank verse, in which a suave host, Charles, invites an innocent young man, Raymond, to a fabricated celebration of the latter's birthday, attended by three older people who claim to be aspects of Raymond's future and fate. "So the child enters the world," intones Charles, thus summarizing an arid, though seductive chamber piece very much in the manner of Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre.
"The Bait," reproduced here in both its original 1953 version and Merrill's 1988 revised text, employs various verse forms as well as prose to depict the tensions among a vain young woman, Julie, her husband Charles, brother Gilbert, and (later) fiance John. The play's center is a Caribbean fishing trip during which the manipulative Gilbert (perhaps inspired by the odious Gilbert Osmond of James' "The Portrait of a Lady") "baits" Charles into fulfilling his impulse to break free, dangerously, from Julie and himself.
Quixotic Julie subsequently leaves Charles, and heir-apparent John ponders the mingled attractions and dangers of his beloved's closeness to her sinister brother. "The Bait" is repetitious and static, but its employment of sea imagery is adroit and haunting. And Merrill's revision is a substantially different work, notable for its much stronger suggestions of sibling incest, and for the transformation of the aforementioned John into Julie's female lover Jan.
Merrill's full-length prose play, "The Immortal Husband" (1955), is an ambitious reworking of the Greek myth of Tithonus, a beautiful youth beloved by the dawn goddess Aurora, who was granted immortality, but not eternal youth.
Merrill's Tithonus, a whiny reincarnation (as it were) of "The Seraglio's" Francis Tanning, is viewed as a young man in Victorian England, then an increasingly befuddled and moribund aged one in Chekhov's Russia, then in 1950s America.
Ironic images of growth and decay, counterpointed with Tithonus's increasingly panicked longevity, have some power, and the dialogue frequently sparkles. But the play takes more than 100 pages to say what's far more incisively and ironically stated in a line in Merrill's fine poem "Key West Aquarium: The Sawfish": "Love's but a dream and only death is kind."
One respects James Merrill's energetic and thoughtful excursions into drama and fiction. And it's probably safe to say that everything he published remains worth reading. But he knew he was a poet. And the evidence of an incomparable body of work proves beyond a doubt that Merrill chose the right path, and that as his older contemporary Robert Frost declared in a different context that has made all the difference.

Bruce Allen is a writer and critic in Maine.


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