A Poet Who Believed in Nothing As in Love

A Poet Who Believed in Nothing As in Love

A Poet Who Believed in Nothing As in Love

After first writing poetry to impress and entertain his wealthy parents’ guests, cosmopolitan James Merrill went cosmic.


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.

They were married and then lived in the limelight for 13 years. Charles Merrill was perennially “warming up for a green bride,” in his son’s words: James was 11 when his parents split up, and the impact it had on him is summarized in his most anthologized poem, “The Broken Home.” This elegy for his childhood is told in a series of sonnets, with imagery that molds Charles and Hellen into gods: first with Merrill lighting a candle end (“what’s left of my life”) before an icon of the Holy Family (“I saw the parents and the child / At their window, gleaming like fruit / With evening’s mild gold leaf”), then in his depiction of Charles in his previous incarnation as a fighter pilot:

My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.

Keeping “several chilled wives / In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves,” the father is Zeus-like. Or more primordial yet: “Always that same old story— / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks”—pre-Olympian! Years later, when alluding in The Changing Light at Sandover to his father’s Southampton estate, Merrill would pun on “ballroom” to invoke the castration of Uranus, which results in Aphrodite’s birth from his sea-tossed genitals. Merrill’s first novel, The Seraglio, caused consternation within the family: He had composed a roman à clef with Charles as the sultan.

Merrill’s mythologization of his mother is even more pervasive and complex. In “The Broken Home,” he remembers his child self stumbling upon Hellen asleep, alone in her bed: “her hair undone, outspread / And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old / Engravings where the acid bit.” When the sleeping beauty awakens, the little prince takes fright and flees; it is unclear why, except that “she reached for me.” The Oedipal mood is reprised in a later poem, “Up and Down.” Mother and son are symbolically married (in a bank vault, by a safe-deposit box) when she bequeaths him an emerald ring “for your bride.” He muses:

I do not tell her, it would sound theatrical,
Indeed this green room’s mine, my very life.

We are each other’s; there will be no wife;

The little feet that patter here are metrical.

Hellen knew perfectly well that there would be no bride, but mother and son spent half a century wrangling over his sexuality—he dissembling, she inveighing, he writing coded lines like “some blue morning also she may damn // Well find her windpipe slit with that same rainbow / Edge a mere weekend with you gives / To books, to living…” (“To My Greek”). It was Hellen who discovered young Merrill’s affair with Kimon Friar, his professor and mentor at Amherst, and convened a war council with Charles (hiring a hit man was discussed). It was Hellen who ruthlessly burned all his letters from this period of first love, in an effort to destroy evidence of his orientation. But it was also Hellen who introduced him to poetry: His first surviving poem, written at age 6, is an uncanny early version of the episode in “The Broken Home.” (Hammer suggests that Hellen may have doctored his prosody.) She was a writer of occasional doggerel herself, and instructed her son on the joys of rhyme and meter, bidding him recite poems in company. Merrill would always be beholden to his earliest pleasure in form, and to the imperative to “impress and entertain” with it.

* * *

Merrill’s privilege guaranteed him, first of all, the best education: a French-German governess; opera and symphony concerts at an early age; boarding school, where he struck up a literary friendship with Frederick Buechner, the future writer and theologian; attendance at Amherst; and, finally, the European Grand Tour. As a result, he had the good fortune to discover his affinities early on: His lifelong role models included Wilde, Proust, and the Marschallin from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. He gravitated to women artists; in this formative period, he eschewed the Modernist giants for the verse of Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay. (He would come to prefer Elizabeth Bishop to all other living poets.) Besides endowing him with culture, wealth freed him from having to work for a living. But Merrill had a preternatural understanding of the pitfalls of his class. He threw himself into his chosen vocation with the same intensity of ambition, Hammer points out, that his father approached finance. His lover in his early 20s, Claude Fredericks, wrote in his diary: “He works, without stopping, for hours, writing hundreds of phrases in his notebook, reading the dictionary hour after hour, dragging each word out of his unconscious—finally, assembling the parts, he puts the poem together.”

But there is no high road to the Muses, as Ezra Pound warned. The early verse could seem airless, excogitated, in its determined pursuit of timelessness. While Merrill was living with Fredericks in Rome, working on The Seraglio and writing the poems that later would appear in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, his First Poems (1951) was published, to mixed reviews. In this magazine, his technique was praised despite his “dearth of ardor”; Louise Bogan in The New Yorker said the book “smells of the lamp.”

In his diaries, Merrill wrestled with the criticisms leveled against him, even when humiliating: “‘Only fairies sit down to write masterpieces.’ (Hemingway, quoted in Time.) a) Not true, alas. b) All too true.” The charge of coldness, however, was the one rebuke he took pains to address. There is an anecdote about his poem “Verse for Urania” that was recounted (lightly fictionalized) in Edmund White’s novel The Farewell Symphony. White was present as a mutual friend, the scholar David Kalstone, read a draft of the poem. “Isn’t it…a bit…cold?” Kalstone frets, in the guise of a character named Joshua. “Of course!” exclaims Merrill’s fictional counterpart. “I forgot to put the feeling in!”

He rushed upstairs to the cupola that served him as a study and fiddled with the verses for an hour before he descended with lines that made us weep, so tender were they, so melting and exalted. That night, when we were alone, Joshua whispered, “A rather chilling vision of the creative process, I’d say. We must never tell anyone about this, since how many people would understand and forgive the heartless, manipulative craftsmanship of great art?”

Merrill published two new volumes in quick succession, closing out his early period with The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace in 1959, and breaking out his new style with Water Street in 1962. The early style is lofty, impersonal, exquisite; Hammer argues that the book’s closing piece, “Mirror,” is Merrill’s first major poem and an ars poetica, “a sort of manifesto, a passionate reply to the poetry of ‘open form’ derived from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams that was fast gaining adherents in the later 1950s.” It’s a dramatic monologue in the voice of a mirror, which addresses itself to a window. The poem presents two openings into a room’s space—two different functions (one reflective, the other outward-looking), two radical philosophies of art. Merrill acknowledges being more mirror than window (he often noted the near-homonym with his name) and plays with the form to seem as though he is writing free verse, but “the last syllable in every second line rhymes with the penultimate syllable of the previous one,” Hammer points out.

Water Street, while still recognizably Merrillesque, responded to the criticism and to the changes afoot in the culture (augured by Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl): The poems are personal, conversational, frequently comic. Water Street meditates on domesticity: Merrill had found his life partner, David Jackson, and the title refers to the home they shared in Stonington, Connecticut. In this book, too, he makes feints at free verse, only to return to the dominant key of iambic pentameter or tetrameter. Hammer notes that in breakthrough poems like “A Tenancy,” Merrill served up his most companionable tones in the tightest stanzas, upending the cliché that free verse is more generous, more direct. With this new combination of constraint and immediacy, Merrill developed a signature style that would carry him through the next three and a half decades.

* * *

Merrill’s Collected Poems hews closely to his life, and vice versa. One of the pleasures of Hammer’s biography is the opportunity it allows to read two giant tomes in parallel—and then three, once it comes to the Sandover chapters. Crosscutting between Hammer’s account of Merrill’s life in Stonington, Athens, and Key West, and the poems that emerged from his experiences there, readers will deepen their knowledge of real persons (the poems are wonderfully, generously peopled): the parents and lovers, first of all, but also great friends like the glamorous Maria Mitsotáki (“Words for Maria”). Few of these presences are literary. Merrill was collegial with contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop, John Hollander, John Ashbery, and Richard Wilbur, and he mentored younger writers. But he didn’t insulate himself, either in academia or in Manhattan.

Vissi d’arte, we see—what about vissi d’amore? According to Hammer, “Merrill believed in nothing as he believed in love.” He fell head over heels with abandon in his youth, then three decisive times in his maturity: with Jackson in 1953; with Strato Mouflouzélis, a (much younger) Greek man, in 1964; and with Peter Hooten, a (much, much younger) actor, in his last decade. In between, there were a few one-sided romances and legions of sex partners, mostly in Athens.

Mouflouzélis inspired the most ardent love poems and came closest to providing the sort of seriocomic drama that Merrill cherished in his operettas. He met the 22-year-old serviceman at a dive bar in Omonia Square in 1964, when Merrill was 38. The relationship lasted on and off for years, surviving the distrustful intrusions of the young man’s working-class family, his acquisition of a wife and child, and finally his years-long dependence on Merrill’s money—with Mouflouzélis extracting gifts from the poet by stringing him along with a promise to apply for a visa and come to Stonington, or by declaring medical emergencies. Merrill may have been loved more for his money than for his person, and not by Mouflouzélis only. Hammer refrains from judgment, but the reader can’t help speculating that the cash nexus deeply compromised Merrill’s affairs and turned him into a tragic lover—which, as a fan of Strauss’s Marschallin, he would have found honorable.

In “Days of 1964,” the rejuvenated poet exclaims, “If that was illusion, I wanted it to last long.” Some years later, in “Strato in Plaster,” he rues “those extra kilos, that moustache,” and “Days of 1971” regards the cooler temperatures the pair have fallen to:

Proust’s law (are you listening?) is twofold:
(a) What least thing our self-love longs for most
Others instinctively withhold;
(b) Only when time has slain desire
Is his wish granted to a smiling ghost
Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the fire.

A decade later, Merrill notices a buzzing (“The House Fly”) and reminisces about one that settled on a sleeping Strato,

Who stirred in the lamp-glow but did not wake.
To say so brings it back on every autumn
Feebler wings, and further from that Sun,
That mist-white wafer she and I partake of
Alone this afternoon, making a rite
Distinct from both the blessing and the blight.

Merrill relished love, but also the relief that time provides from its ardor; it was one of his themes, and the ceremoniousness of his prosody is a ritual enactment of this calming.

* * *

If the charming Mouflouzélis was the muse of the erotic poetry, steadfast David Jackson was the midwife of Merrill’s epic trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover—otherwise known as “the Ouija-board poems.” The Ouija sessions were a way to bind the couple together after both sex and art absented themselves from the relationship. (Jackson had had ambitions as both a novelist and a painter, which dribbled away into alcoholism.) With Jackson’s left hand on the teacup they used as a planchette, and Merrill’s left hand poised lightly on his, the pair queried “the spirits”; Merrill took dictation with his right. Yet he didn’t use the transcripts as fodder for poetry until the 1970s. The Book of Ephraim, the first in the trilogy, reconstructs various séances over the decades in the form of an abecedarian. Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant incorporate the spirits’ dictation directly. All were written within a decade, with Merrill interpreting, and versifying, voluminous pages of transcripts that appear as long strings of letters, like ancient Greek writing—or like DNA, but with 26 chromosomes. The dialogue with the spirit named Ephraim was literary and philosophical; but as the trilogy progressed, it became more fantastical, crowded with the voices of the dearly departed (Jackson’s parents, Maria Mitsotáki) in addition to an array of characters, from W.H. Auden to the Archangel Michael to a unicorn to a speaking peacock-bat, who discourse variously on “Biology and Chaos.” The goal was alternately “a sacred poem that would serve God Biology, revealing the laws of his creation” and “a map of the imagination.” Among its many influences was a coeval epic in progress on movie screens round the world: Star Wars.

What possessed Merrill (in every sense of that word)? For one thing, ambition:

A long poem was the test of any poet’s powers.… Dante, Milton, Rilke, Pound. What would their shorter works amount to without the great achievements that crowned them? The notion struck me at twenty—at forty, too, for that matter—as a dangerous form of megalomania, and I wasn’t buying any of it. But at fifty?

Those readers who profess to be baffled by Merrill’s turn—the cosmopolitan gone cosmic—­need only think of the Western poetic tradition. From the Anglo-Saxon, we have Caedmon—an illiterate cowherd who became the first recorded poet in Old English when an angel appeared to him and bid him sing “of the first Creation.” From the Greeks, we have numerous legends of other­worldly inspiration: the nine Muses, Philomela’s nightingale, Orpheus, Plato’s daimon. And from the Odyssey we have the model of the katabasis, the descent into the underworld to garner knowledge of the future from the dead. These myths have inspired poets from Dante to Blake to Yeats to Pound—all of whom influenced The Changing Light at Sandover. And as with their visionary works, it pays to graze a little bit at first. Hammer helps us ease our way in, picking out glimmering passages that promise more. As Ephraim says, “I deck myself in glimpses as in gems.”

But Sandover wasn’t just a test of Merrill’s prowess: There was something fundamental in him that contained multitudes. We can only start to see it now—to think of him as a man overlaid with the trappings of midcentury American gentility (or neoformalism), but whose every impulse was toward multiplicity. Doubleness was, well, second nature: the “broken home,” the closet, the window and the mirror, mother and father as opposing forces, even living in two countries. “A writer already has two lives, don’t you think?” he once asked Kalstone. These were “the two sides of the creative temperament”: active and passive, craftsman and receiver of inspiration.

In language, one could be more than double. An obsessive anagrammatist, Merrill approached the Ouija board as pure alphabet. He loved puns: “Indeed, the punster has touched…upon a secret, fecund place in language herself.… The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter) ‘merely’ betrays the hidden wish of words.” When asked by the poet J.D. McClatchy what he found in Athens, Merrill revealed his orientation toward language as a reservoir of imagination rather than a tool of eloquence: Greek was “a language we didn’t understand two words of at first. That was a holiday! You could imagine that others were saying extraordinarily fascinating things—the point was to invent, if not what they were saying, at least its implications, its overtones.” One of his greatest poems is called “Lost in Translation,” a multiple-mystery story about trying to find a Rilke translation of Valéry’s “Palme” in Athens while simultaneously remembering a puzzle that he and his governess had worked on during his fabled eleventh summer, when his parents all but abandoned him at their estate. In Hammer’s typically fluent exegesis, we are told that his governess

speaks French with a German accent: only in adulthood would Merrill learn that her mother was English, her father German, and she “only French by marriage.”… When she holds the boy at night, she soothes him in French and German in turn: “Patience, cheri. Geduld, mein schatz.” Teaching him “her languages,” she teaches him that there is no single mother tongue.

Nothing is single: not language, not nationality—and not even mothers! “Lost in Translation” concludes with a magical reversal: “all is translation.” Despite his “dearth of ardor,” Merrill turned life and love into art, and then showed that art gives us more love, more life.

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