• Piotr K. Gwiazda
Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)


Shortly after James Merrill’s death in February 1995, critics and reviewers began to draw comparisons between his poetry and that of W.H. Auden. “He is the obvious immediate heir of W.H. Auden,” said W.S. Merwin in the New York Times Book Review. “He knew more about the language of poetry than anyone since Auden, and used it to make poems that will remain part of anyone’s definition of the art,” noted J.D. McClatchy in the New Yorker. “Merrill, for all the poignancy of his work, was a comic poet in the line of Pope and Byron and Auden,” remarked Helen Vendler in her review of the poet’s final collection A Scattering of Salts. In the memorial issue of Poetry, Stephen Yenser praised Merrill as a verbal artist: “He crafted the consummate lyric, in which he loaded every rift with ore (to borrow Keats’s theft of Spenser), and he wrote the wittily ramshackle narrative, and he sometimes, somehow, impossibly did both at once”; because of his technical skill, he added, for the last two decades of his life Merrill was a proud keeper of Auden’s legendary OED.1


Literary History Literary Tradition Individual Talent York Time Book Review Female Writer 
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  1. 1.
    W.S. Merwin, “The End of More Than Just a Book,” review of A Scattering of Salts, by James Merrill, in Critical Essays on James Merrill, ed. Guy Rotella (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), 73;Google Scholar
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    Richard R. Bozorth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 3.Google Scholar
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    W.H. Auden, “A Talk with W.H. Auden,” interview by Michael André, Unmuzzled Ox 1, no. 3 (Summer 1972): 9.Google Scholar
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    See discussions of Merrill’s revisionary treatment of other literary figures in Sandover in Robert Polito, “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” in A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, ed. Polito, 31–63; and Jeff Westover, “Writing on the Sur(face) of the Past: Convivial Visions and Revisions in the Poetry of James Merrill,” in Critical Essays on James Merrill, ed. Rotella, 215–30. Mark Bauer’s This Composite Voice (New York: Routledge, 2003) is an extended inquiry into the poetic relationship between Merrill and William Butler Yeats.Google Scholar
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    In this respect, Merrill reminds us of Richard Howard, another “pupil” of Auden, who in his work, as David Bergman argues, “construct[s] a cultural and historical matrix in which his own depersonalized work may be located and against which it can resonate” (Bergman, Gaiety Transfigured, 59). There is something akin between Merrill’s metacommentary on literary tradition in The Changing Light at Sandover and Howard’s meditation on poetic possession in a 2004 interview: “When you really read something, you can allow it to enter you and become you, and it’s thrilling. There’s a realm, not the unconscious exactly, because it’s verbal. … Those things that you read that touch you, that shape you, you then can give back. Sometimes there are figures that are very powerful like Auden or Stevens, and you feel you have to write their poems until you can get free of them. It happened with Yeats and Roethke. Those late Roethke poems are all in the meters and voice of W.B. Yeats. That’s a sort of terrible thing for us and it was terrible for him. In a sense, one really hopes to be taken over by the material you read; it gives you everything. It also is something that has to be transcended. But it’s just wonderful when you know it’s happening and you feel you’re in the hands of something else. Influence, though, is deeper than imitation, and unmoderated. You can’t control it in the same way.” “A Conversation with Richard Howard,” interview by Priscilla Becker, Crossroads, April 21, 2004, (accessed August 26, 2005).Google Scholar
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    Harold Bloom, introduction to Modern Critical Views: James Merrill, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), 2. Critics have been reluctant to apply Bloom’s model of poetic influence to Merrill’s ironic “take” on literary tradition. Philip Kuberski writes: “Merrill’s poem dramatizes poetic influence, verging on possession, and yet it does not follow the tragic logic of Bloom’s violent battle of souls over the integrity of a single ‘proper name’ and its canon. Where Bloom’s theory is governed by the classically Western and oedipal version of creation through conflict, Merrill’s poem becomes a masque that stages the education of earthly souls in the ways of heaven through a succession of costumes that leads finally to the disappearance of the ‘self.’” “The Metaphysics of Postmodern Death: Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover,” ELH 56, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 244. Jeff Westover briefly considers Merrill’s picture of poetic influence as an example of Bloom’s revisionary ratio apophrades, “the dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to inhabit their former house,” but concludes that “despite the fact that he occasionally measures the success of his poetry against what he considers to be the failures of his influential forerunners, Merrill insists on maintaining a place for those poets at the inviting table that his own poem embodies” (In Critical Essays on James Merrill, ed. Rotella, 220). Mark Bauer chronicles Merrill’s revisionary struggles with W.B. Yeats, whom he calls his “most demanding precursor” (Bauer, This Composite Voice, 109). Bauer’s study is perhaps the most thorough application of Bloom’s theory of influence to Merrill’s poem, though even he admits that Merrill both makes use of and calls into question Bloom’s model in his “consistent campaign of belittlement” of Yeats throughout The Changing Light at Sandover (Ibid., 138).Google Scholar
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    Scholars in the position to make canonical statements have been rather generous to Merrill’s trilogy. The second volume of David Perkins’s A History of Modern Poetry (1987) devotes a whole chapter to Merrill’s achievement, bestowing liberal praise on The Changing Light at Sandover and making prudent attempts at canonical placement alongside Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Hart Crane’s The Bridge.Google Scholar
  50. Merrill also enjoys a prominent status in Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller’s The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993), where he and John Ashbery are the subject of a separate chapter by John Shoptaw. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom declares Merrill one of the “three American presences of our moment,” the other two being John Ashbery and Thomas Pynchon. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 527.Google Scholar
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    Stephen Yenser, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 217.Google Scholar

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