Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore: “I lived for art, I lived for love.” The line that launches Puccini’s aria from Tosca might serve as an entrée to the life and art of James Merrill, whose 885-page Collected Poems and 640-page epic The Changing Light at Sandover, not to mention two separate volumes of collected prose, novels, and plays, are now joined by a landmark critical biography by Yale scholar Langdon Hammer. That this single line might hold in the balance one artist’s lifework is a fitting prospect for a poet who was also an opera lover. (Merrill saw Maria Callas sing “Vissi d’arte” at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965, when he was 39, wildly infatuated with a younger lover, and writing his greatest love poems.) Merrill revered the quip and the couplet, the aphorism and the quatrain, an ancient species of information technology. He gravitated early to the tightly constructed metaphysical poem, and kept returning to it even after he’d worked himself loose of his early, extreme aestheticism. He was a Modernist no less, animated too by gigantism and vision, like Ezra Pound and Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens.
Since his death in 1995, from a heart attack related to AIDS, Merrill’s reputation has been hobbled by his respectability—the respectability of a poet who hailed from the Northeast, wrote impeccably, adhered to traditional forms, and was championed by Ivy League mandarins like Helen Vendler. At the same time, too many readers have seen only the aestheticism in the work and not the vision, and have made specious connections between Merrill’s adherence to meter and his social class. (He was the youngest child of Charles Merrill, cofounder of Merrill Lynch.) Though Merrill was admiring of poets like John Ashbery and Robert Duncan—experimentalists who nonetheless bent their individual talents toward tradition—his gracile talent has deflected attention from his own deep weirdness.
Hammer offers what we have badly needed: a posthumous reckoning of both Merrill’s ordinariness and his strangeness. The biographer reconstructs the poet’s art and his loves, writ great and small, from letters, diaries, poem drafts, Ouija-board transcripts, and interviews with those who shared his life (Merrill never lost track of a friend). One could surmise that the poet inspires friendship even after death: Hammer, who met him only once, as a college student, devoted 15 years to this book, and serves Merrill in every way that his subject might wish: as an artful storyteller, a writer of stylish paragraphs, a canny literary interpreter, and a sharer of values that spring from a deep education in centuries of literature. The biography offers scholarship but also sympathy, candor as well as delicacy. Hammer is an adept reader of human ambiguities who also refrains from pathologizing or excessively psychoanalyzing the lives of Merrill and his cohort, which were complicated by money and sexual subterfuge in pre-Stonewall America.
Hammer takes his cue from Merrill’s own love of showmanship. He writes that the poet’s “friends were arrayed around him like an opera cast: the principals, supporting singers, fabled stars with cameos, comic relief, an ingenue or two, and the full chorus behind.” The only child of a glamorous, larger-than-life couple, how could Merrill have fancied himself otherwise? Charles Merrill and Hellen Ingram constituted a cosmos in miniature. Both grew up in modest circumstances in northeastern Florida. Charles described his upbringing as “poor,” but the scrappy upstart (son of a country doctor) made it to boarding school, then Amherst College, then New York City. He created the Safeway grocery chain before inventing the first mass-market brokerage firm, in a kind of revenge against his genteel schoolmates. Ingram—or Hellen, as she is consistently called in the book (to remind us of Helen of Troy, Hellenism in general, and possibly “hellion” as well!)—was also self-made: She rose as a society reporter in Jacksonville and then Miami, where she published her own newsletter. Her work took her to New York, and her beauty brought her to Charles’s notice.