With The Changing Light at Sandover James Merrill found his own way to write an epic sacred poem in the second half of the twentieth century. The poem describes a world in which DNA, atoms, the history and future of mankind, nature, the angels, and God all find a place - and vital to the design is the role of culture, and particularly poetry. In an impressive variety of poetic forms and styles, and with considerable verbal wit, the narrative of the poem describes the experiences over 20 years that Merrill and his male partner David Jackson had with a Ouija board, and is organized, on one level, around Dante's triad of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and on another around the structure of the board itself, its letters, numbers, and its YES, NO, and ampersand. The voices from the spirit world are transcribed in small upper-case letters, while the rest of the poem involves scene-setting, and commentary, questions and discussion by the two mortals. The details of Merrill's cosmology have been variously identified as borrowed from Plato, Dante, and Tolkien, but the impressive part of the achievement is its wide-reaching synthesis. Through the three books of the poem, and the coda, emerges a vision of man's fate both predetermined and dependent upon his actions, and a poem both the poet's own and one for which -whether from his subconscious or from the worlds claimed by the spirit characters - he is a vehicle of transmission. In fact the poem raises questions generally of what constitutes individual identity and what the relationship of the individual is to a creative work (The Waste Land and the Odyssey, Merrill and Jackson are told, were dictated by the spirit world). These are central questions of this extraordinary poem - raised by the ideas of reincarnation, the presence of spiritual guides and patrons, the actions of dark and white angels, the multiple transformations, and the importance of love, friendship, and self-knowledge that are at the center of the poem's record of Merrill and Jackson's sessions.
Merrill's volume Divine Comedies (1976) - which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize - contains a number of autobiographical poems leading up to the 90-page "Book of Ephraim" that was to be the first book of the trilogy. Ephraim's mortal life was as a Greek Jew in the first century. He was killed by the Roman guard on the orders of Emperor Tiberius for having been the lover of the emperor's nephew, Caligula. Ephraim first contacts Merrill and Jackson (JM and DJ in the poem) in 1955, and over a period of years describes a system of reincarnation containing nine stages, and the roles of patrons and representatives within these cycles. This section of the poem is divided into the letters of the alphabet on the Ouija board. The sessions begin in Merrill's house in Stonington, Connecticut, but over the course of the trilogy follow the couple's travels, particularly to Greece and Italy. Also incorporated into the poem are the deaths that occur within the couple's family and friends, some of whom go on to make appearances, important or minimal, as spirits, and to a lesser extent the poem incorporates more global events too. These larger events are also linked to the knowledge being imparted to JM and DJ: examples include a hurricane, Queen Elizabeth Il's Silver Jubilee, and the deaths of two popes. At various times in the poem well-known literary figures from the past appear, such as Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Vladimir Nabokov.
An important part of the poem's narrative is that knowledge is accumulated, and sometimes corrected, as the poem moves towards its final stages. Ephraim is a lower spirit and not - in that identity - privy to the higher knowledge revealed later. Sometimes the higher powers intervene to regulate what is being imparted. Two important spirits who learn along with JM and DJ are the poet W. H. Auden - who becomes a kind of father and mentor to JM - and Maria Mitsotaki, a friend of the couple's who died in 1974, and who serves as an earth mother figure. Both join many of the sessions and offer commentaries and supply visual details that the mortals cannot see (which allows Merrill to include those details in the poem).
A more reliable, but still limited, medium, is Mirabell of Mirabell: Books of Number, the second volume, which appeared in 1978, and won the National Book Award the following year. JM and DJ provide the name, from a character in Congreve's The Way of the World, to supplement his number, 741. Number is the governing frame of this section, which contains more transcription, and thus exposition of the book's vision, than the first book.
While Ephraim's focus was on culture, Mirabell's is more on science -thus the "objectivity" of number. In this book JM and DJ learn that God's angels have created two previous civilizations, each of which has ended in catastrophe. The third, mankind, may suffer the same fate. Nature's attempts to help mankind are being thwarted by some of the advances of science. Medical knowledge is leading to overpopulation (and thus some animal souls are having to be circulated, with possibly dangerous results), and mankind's splitting of the atom is coming too close to usurping Nature's own power. An important purpose of the lessons that form the third book, they are told, will be to allow the poem to sound a warning from the angels. JM and DJ also learn that there are five periodically reincarnated souls who figure importantly in Western history in various guises (for example Plato and Einstein) to try to keep mankind from self-destruction.
Mirabell promises to introduce the poet to the angels, and Michael appears at the end of this second book to foreshadow the central role that he, Emmanuel, Raphael, and Gabriel will play in this third book. Of the four, Gabriel is most inclined to give up on mankind's potential for reform. In the third book, Scripts for the Pageant (1980), JM and DJ, with the help of Auden and Maria, argue for mankind to be allowed a chance to progress, pointing out that creativity, determination, and will are qualities to admire, as well as being qualities which have led to the serious problems that humankind has caused.
Three important new characters help the mortals in this book, two of them recently deceased - the scientist George Cotzias (who joins Auden, Maria, JM, and DJ in the sessions) and the musician Robert Morse, both friends ofJM's (Morse appears in the second book while still alive as a reader of the poem-in-progress). They are joined by a unicorn spirit from one of the two previous earthly civilizations, Unice. This third book is the poem's Paradiso, and throughout the imagery is suffused with light as part of its emphasis upon the visionary. The balance upon which mankind's fate depends is represented by the book's being organized around the Ouija board's three stations YES, &, NO. The central encounters are presented as dramas, the "pageants" of the title.
The poem's coda, titled "The Higher Keys," appeared when the three books were collected under the title The Changing Light at Sandover. In this section mankind appears to have some hope of avoiding the fate of the previous two civilizations. Robert Morse is reborn and given the gift of the five senses through visits from the various angels - the process is watched in its various stages by the mortals. Maria, who has been reincarnated in India, is a childhood prodigy, and holds the promise of being a future guide for mankind. Maria turns out to have been in part the manifestation of Nature, while Ephraim is discovered to have been the vehicle through whom the angel Michael spoke to JM and DJ. The poem's conclusion returns upon itself, and to Merrill's own childhood. Twenty-six assembled spirits and angels gather to hear the poem that Merrill has fashioned from the 20 years of transcriptions. The audience comprises figures upon whom - like the hope of the poem itself - rests the progress of civilization, and thus the constructive rather than destructive future of mankind. The setting turns into the ballroom at Sandover, a reminder of the poet's childhood, and thus of his parents' divorce and the broken home that had been a recurring theme in his earlier poems. As the poet begins to read to the audience, the last word of the poem is also its first - "Admittedly."
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