James Merrill was the son of a grotesquely successful stockbroker, co-founder of the firm Merrill Lynch. His childhood was exclusive and pampered, until his father, a blustering and insensitive philanderer, divorced his mother when James was 13. The son's intellectual precocity unsettled the father, as did his poetic ambitions. The story goes that when the son said he wanted to be a poet his father promptly hired a tutor to instruct him, much as one would engage a tennis or swimming coach.
Neither Merrill nor his heartier half-brother were at all interested in following their father to Wall Street. Instead, both sons took paths of their own choosing, the half-brother to found the now famous Commonwealth private school in Boston, James to pursue a full-time career as a writer.
James Merrill was a thoroughly Formalist poet whose development shows the fallacy of crudely dividing post-war American poetry between formal verse and free. As Merrill's own progression showed, the use of traditional techniques need not restrain a poet's subject-matter or his expression of feelings.
His early poems, published in a 1951 volume, First Poems, now seem stiff, with the technical self-consciousness seen in the early Robert Lowell of Lord Weary's Castle but without that poet's rhetorical power. After publishing two plays and a novel, The Seraglio (1957), without much success, Merrill produced his next collection of poetry in 1959. The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace was well received and his reputation grew rapidly. His technical virtuosity was now enhanced by a softer lyrical sense and a dream-like evocation of place, as in "Hotel de l'Univers et Portugal": The strange bed, whose recurrent dream we are, Basin, and shutters guarding each with their latch The hour of arrivals, the reputed untouched Square. . .
But now our very poverties are dissolving, Are swallowed up, strong powders to ensure Sleep, by a strange bed in the dark of dreaming.
His subjects are places, travel, and friends, the narrative cool and matter-of-fact but drawing none the less on a rich tapestry of reference - part classical, part utterly down-to-earth.
Further volumes followed every three or four years; if not prodigious the output was certainly steady, and Merrill's reputation grew - he won the National Book Award in 1967 for Nights and Days. His popularity, however, was restricted by the formal severity of his work and his unwillingness to follow the 1960s fashion for confession.
Merrill's poetry grew markedly more personal in Braving the Elements (1973), which some feel his best book. The poems show a greater willingness to draw on his own life, and the tone is less formal, almost chatty. Comedy plays a larger role, as in the poem "Days of 1935", a fantasy of being kidnapped inspired by his parents' fears of his childhood abduction in the wake of the Lindbergh case. There are more topical poems: "18 West 11th Street" is a reverie on a Greenwich Village house where Merrill once lived, and where Sixties weathermen blew themselves up with a bomb. It begins: In what at least Seemed anger the Aquarians in the basement Had been perfecting a device For making sense to us If only briefly and on pain Of incommunication ever after.
Merrill's poetic predilection had been for relatively short, tightly conceived lyrics, so what followed came as a surprise. In his next book, Divine Comedies (1976), there appeared a long poem called "The Book of Ephraim". It was followed by two further volume-length poems, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980), the three together constituting an epic 17,000-line poem eventually published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. The base conceit of the work was Merrill's use of a Ouija board in his Connecticut house. This oddball medium allowed a range of spirits and personalities to appear, beginning with the fictional Ephraim ("a Greek Jew/ Born AD 8 at Xanthos") but broadening to include Auden, Einstein, Yeats, Plato.The poem moves effortlessly between the voices of the spirits and the calmer narrative of Merrill himself. In its sheer ambition The Changing Light at Sandover is impressive; what makes it remarkable, and Merrill's master-work, is its fusion of technical virtuosity and narrative variety.
Merrill travelled widely, but spent most of his time alternating between the house in Stonington, Connecticut, he shared from the Fifties with his friend David Jackson and a house in Greece he bought in 1964. He taught occasionally at universities, but with the luxury of an independent income did so out of interest rather need. He was not an inspiring or hortatory teacher but was impressive in his courtesy. One of his Yale students, for example, remembers nothing Merrill said in a semester of seminars, but still treasures the small written comments appended to a sheaf of adolescent poems, and the memory of an entire class spent listening to Merrill read Robert Frost's poem "New Hampshire".
If not a poet of the calibre of his much-beloved friend Auden, James Merrill was nevertheless as fine a writer as any poet of his generation. He showed repeatedly and powerfully in his career how the manifest constraints of formal poetry can still inspire artistic creativity.