blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

James Merrill's Life

Ann T. Keene

Merrill, James (3 Mar. 1926-6 Feb. 1995), poet, was born in New York City to Charles Edward Merrill, a stockbroker, and Helen Ingram Merrill, who published a small newspaper. The elder Merrill, who had two children from a previous marriage, was a founder of and senior partner in the brokerage firm Merrill, Lynch & Company. Young James was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege, which continued even after his parents' divorce when he was twelve. A governess awakened his early interest in languages, teaching him both French and German, and he began writing poetry as a child, encouraged by his parents. A passion from childhood onward was music, especially opera, to which he was introduced at the age of eleven.

Merrill was sent to exclusive private schools in the city and then to preparatory school at Lawrenceville, in New Jersey, where he continued writing poetry as well as short stories. With the help of his father he privately published a small collection of verse. After graduating in 1943 he entered Amherst College but took a leave of absence the following year to serve in the U.S. Army until the end of World War II, in 1945. Despite this interruption, Merrill excelled in his studies, majoring in literature. Having written a thesis on Marcel Proust, who became a major inspiration for his work, he graduated summa cum laude with a Phi Beta Kappa key in 1947.

During Merrill's years at Amherst his future career as a poet seemed all but assured. By the time of his graduation his verse had already appeared in Poetry and the Kenyon Review, and he had published his first book of poems, The Black Swan (1946). After college he moved back to New York to write--the enormous Merrill family fortune allowed him to pursue his interests without having to earn a living--but after a while he found the atmosphere too intense and distracting for serious work. He traveled for several years in Europe and Asia, reflecting on his life and family and apparently coming to terms with his homosexuality. He eventually settled in the small coastal town of Stonington, Connecticut, with David Jackson, who would become his longtime companion. During the 1960s Merrill bought a house in Athens and subsequently another residence in Key West, Florida, and divided his time among the three homes.

Merrill's first mature collection of verse was published as First Poems in 1951 and received mixed reviews; while a few critics praised his elegance and sensibility, most found his poetry to be technically polished but ultimately dull, without the necessary element of delight. Merrill responded by concentrating next on prose, including two plays: The Bait (1953), about a brother-sister relationship, and The Immortal Husband (1955), a retelling of the Greek myth of Tithonus. Both were produced in New York and received mildly favorable reviews. In 1957 he again received mixed reviews for his first novel, The Seraglio, the story of an aging businessman and his predatory female admirers. His inability to find definitive success as either a playwright or a novelist led Merrill to turn back to poetry. In 1954 he had published a limited edition of his poems, Short Stories, which was largely ignored by the critics, but he attracted wide attention in 1959 with the publication by Knopf of The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace. This time critics were almost all commendatory, calling it an important collection by a poet who had at last found his true voice, though some dismissed it as the work of a dilettantish aesthete and his subject matter--gardens, statues, Greek gods, and the like--as superficial.

There were few reservations about Merrill's collection Water Street (1962), which was praised for the very things his 1959 book had, for some, lacked: "a deeper compassion, a kind of humility," according to X. J. Kennedy in the New York Times Book Review, as well as self-irony. Indeed, Merrill had moved, as he later acknowledged, from a belief in "art for art's sake" to "art for life's sake." In the early 1960s he returned briefly to prose, writing his second--and what would be his last--novel, The (Diblos) Notebook (1965), the story of a Greek American returning to his homeland. Reviews were generally good, but Merrill now felt ready to commit himself full time to poetry. In 1966 he published another collection of verse, Nights and Days, that earned uniformly critical praise and received the National Book Award for poetry in 1967. With the publication of The Fire Screen in 1969, Merrill's place as an important American poet was now assured, and he was compared favorably with both W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens. Two years later, in recognition of his stature, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. That stature was reconfirmed in 1972 with the publication of his collection Braving the Elements. Critics extolled his gifts as a lyric poet, in particular as one who wrote both wittingly and movingly about love. Merrill's receipt of American poetry's highest honor, the Bollingen Prize, in 1973, was still another confirmation of his significance.

In the final two decades of his life, Merrill's reputation as a major poet grew even greater as he published new collections of verse. His Divine Comedies (1976), which won a Pulitzer Prize, included "The Book of Ephraim," a long poem allegedly relating the messages of spirits from the other world, including deceased family members; Merrill claimed that he and David Jackson had received these messages through the use of a Ouija board. The Ouija poems continued and were published in two subsequent volumes, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). All three collections were included in a revised version in The Changing Light at Sandover, published in 1982. Although some readers and critics alike expressed initial skepticism at Merrill's foray into the occult, there was ultimate agreement that he had written a great and moving series of poems narrating the story of an individual's passage through time. Some reviewers compared his imaginative vision to that of Yeats, Blake, Milton, and Dante.

After Sandover, Merrill published several more verse collections, including Late Settings (1985) and The Inner Room (1988), and a collection of short prose, Recitative (1986). He also wrote a memoir, A Different Person (1994), in which he wrote candidly of his upbringing, his unhappiness as a child, and his transcendence of that unhappiness through his poetry. He died suddenly in Tucson, Arizona, while on vacation. A final collection of his poems, A Scattering of Salts, was published posthumously in 1995.


For biographical information see Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 63 (1998), and Willard Spiegelman, "James Merrill," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 5: American Poets and Writers since World War II (1980). For critical evaluations of Merrill's work, see especially Stephen Yenser, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (1987); David Lehman and Charles Berger, eds., James Merrill: Essays in Criticism (1982); and Guy L. Rotella, ed., Critical Essays on James Merrill (1996). See also David Kalstone, Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery (1977). An obituary appears in the New York Times, 7 Feb. 1995.

Source:; American National Biography Online June 2000 Update. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 23:17:44 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Return to James Merrill