James Merrill was born in New York City, the son of wealthy financier Charles Edward Merrill one of the founders of the highly successful brokerage firm Merrill, Lynch, and Company. When he was 13 his parents separated, a traumatic event for Merrill that is recalled in a number of his poems. His mother was Charles Merrill's second wife. The poet writes of his father's marriages in "The Broken Home":
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died There were already several chilled wives In sable orbit - rings, cars, permanent waves. We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime" At three score ten. But money was not time.
Merrill's undergraduate studies at Amherst College were interrupted for a year in 1944 when he served in the US army. He graduated in 1947 having written an undergraduate thesis on Marcel Proust - a writer who was to have influence upon the reflective, meditative mode of Merrill's mature poetry in which, as in the lines above, time and death are frequent themes. Following his graduation, Merrill taught occasionally at colleges and universities, but thanks to his inherited wealth he was able largely to live a life of writing and traveling, eventually publishing more than 25 volumes of verse and proving himself a master of a wide variety of poetic forms.
Merrill's first two books of poetry were privately published, with the help of his father: Jim's Book in 1939 while he was at preparatory school, and The Black Swan in 1946 while he was still in college. After a short period living in New York, and some years traveling in Europe and Asia, Merrill purchased a house in Stonington, Connecticut, and settled there. He later purchased additional homes in Athens - spending much of each year in Greece until the late 1970s - and in Key West, Florida.
Merrill's first commercial volume of poems, First Poems, appeared in 1951 and was praised for its craft and elegance, with some admiration of its high symbolist rhetoric, but the book produced little excitement. A later volume, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), garnered more attention, but the work for which he is best known was still to come. Between the two books he published two plays, and the first of his two novels, The Seraglio -in which a central character is based upon his father.
Water Street (1962) marked Merrill's emergence as an important poet, and many of its poems exhibit the qualities that characterized his work for the rest of his career. To the wit, polish, and elegance of the earlier work was added an increased interest in narrative and a relaxed conversational style and emotional depth. "An Urban Convalescence," the first poem of Water Street, is often cited as marking the change. For the first time Merrill writes in an overtly autobiographical mode. The poem begins, "Out for a walk, after a week in bed, / I find them tearing up part of my block," and goes on to be a meditation on, among other things, the nature of time and home. Characteristic themes in Merrill's mature poetry are the description of a past love, or of lost childhood. The poems are often structured around a particular motif that takes on emotional and narrative resonance through the poem. In "The Broken Home" the memories of his parents' marriage coming apart return a number of times to a remembered scene with the family's Irish setter. In "Lost in Translation" a complex jigsaw puzzle from "a New York / Puzzle-rental shop" replaces the child's absent mother and father. The poem narrates the piecing together of the puzzle as the adult poet tries to piece together the actions and feelings of "A summer without parents." "The Victor Dog" takes the old trademark of RCA Victor Records as the starting point for musing upon a world of music and art, pleasure and work.
Merrill's poetry of the 1960s and later was significant and highly regarded. His 1966 volume Nights and Days won a National Book Award; in 1971 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1973 he won the Bollingen Prize for his volume Braving the Elements (1972); and from 1979 until his death he served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. But Merrill's book-length poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1982) was the work that firmly established him as a major poet. The result ostensibly of many years at a Ouija board, shared with his long-time companion David Jackson, the ambitious poem, running to 560 pages, is populated by figures from the spiritual world. These include the medium Ephraim (a figure from the first century), W. H. Auden, and dead friends and family members of Merrill's and Jackson's. The poem lays out a complex system of earthly and spiritual levels, and its voices range from the intimate to the cosmic. Parts of the poem are presented as "dictation" from the Ouija board itself.
Divine Comedies (1976) includes the first section of the poem "The Book of Ephraim," and the volume won Merrill a Pulitzer Prize. Two subsequent sections followed, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), which won the poet a second National Book Award, and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). When the complete poem appeared in 1982 Merrill added to the three sections a Coda in which he begins to read the poem to an assembly of gathered spirits. For some reviewers, the poem's visionary qualities invite comparison with the work of Yeats, Blake, Milton, and Dante.
Following The Changing Light at Sandover Merrill returned to the style of his shorter poems in Late Settings (1985) and The Inner Room (1988). The former contains "From the Cutting-Room Floor" - material that did not finally appear in The Changing Light at Sandover, including the voices of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens. Merrill's final volume, A Scattering of Salts, was published a month after his death. A Different Person (1993) is a prose memoir which includes much biographical information that is relevant to the poems. Recitative (1986) collects Merrill's shorter prose pieces.
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