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On "The Broken Home"

David Kalstone

… When Merrill uses an idiom, he turns it over curiously. So, for example, the dead metaphor "On the rocks" springs unexpectedly to life. …

[Kalstone quotes the section beginning "When my parents were younger" and that ends "on the rocks."]

… This newsreel is one of the central panels of an often saddened and erotically charged work. The cartoon suffragettes and their male oppressors prove more than quaint in the context of a long poem whose speaker is exorcising the ghosts of a broken home. Behind the gossip columnist’s phrase ("on the rocks": shipwreck dismissed as if it were a cocktail) lies a buried colloquial truth about the tensions eternally repeated in a worldly marriage, Father Time and Mother Earth, re-enacted erosions and cross-purposes. Beneath amused glimpses of 1920s bravado, the verse penetrates to parents’ energies (both envied and resented) that shape and cripple a child’s.

from David Kalstone, "James Merrill: Transparent Things," Chapter 3 in Five Temperaments (New York: Oxford U P, 1977), 80-81.

James Merrill

… That bit in "The Broken Home" – "Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks" – isn’t meant as a joke. History in our time has cut loose, has broken faith with Nature. But poems, even those of the most savage incandescence, can’t deal frontally with such huge, urgent subjects without sounding grumpy or dated when they should still be in their prime. So my parents’ divorce dramatized on a human scale a subject that couldn’t have been handled otherwise. Which is what a "poetic" turn of mind allows for. You don’t see eternity except in the grain of sand, or history except at the family dinner table.

From James Merrill, "An Interview with J. D. McClatchy,"(originally in Paris Review 84 [Summer 1982] as "The Art of Poetry XXXI), rep. in J. D. McClatchy, Ed. Recitative: Prose by James Merrill (North Point: San Francisco, 1986), 72.

Judith Moffett

[Moffett begins by quoting the second sonnet and describing it as written in a "clear, sane, civilized voice" that works by pulling the reader’s direction in two ways]

It registers the regret of a son whose father’s "soul" was obscured by two consuming interests that could not be shared until "too late"; at the same time it is distracted and entertained by the devices of Merrill’s style: the astronomical metaphor {eclipse, chilled wives in orbit), the double entendres (cloud banks, sable, rings), and the cliché "time is money" being stood on its head. …

The proportions of amusement and emotion are reversed in the fourth sonnet. … Because of her context we know the woman must be the child’s mother, otherwise she might be taken solely for the terrifying female principle celebrated in a host of poems and myths, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Certainly this sonnet, which brilliantly reveals the contrasts between passive appearances and dreadful realities, reveals as well this female principle in the clutching maternal figure on the bed, against whom a child’s sole defense is flight. Mother, of course, represents Woman to all children; the point here is that Woman – even supine and probably asleep – terrifies this child who needs to find and touch her. The scene resolves as a paradigm for all the heterosexual material in Merrill’s work: desire to open closed doors, to approach and touch the Sleeping Woman, is countermanded by fear of waking her innate deadliness and being made her captive.

from Judith Moffett, James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry. (New York: Columbia U P, 1984), 53-55.

Vernon Shetley

"The Broken Home," certainly among the richest of Merrill’s autobiographical reflections, exemplifies this strategy of ironic distancing from both mythic analogue and the language of cliché. The broken home of the title, of course, is the first of many common idioms the poem holds up for scrutiny. That that idiom might have been spoken sincerely, if euphemistically, by his parents’ generation but would hardly be used "straight" in his own social world serves to indicate both the distance from which the poet views the events he recounts, and the gulf between the social mores, and thus the public language, of the 1930s and the 1960s, for Merrill was well aware that a new vocabulary for describing social acts implies a new set of attitudes toward those facts. At the same time, the definite article again assumes the reader’s familiarity, and when this image makes its one appearance, in the last of the poem’s seven sonnets, it has clearly expanded beyond its specific reference to Merrill’s childhood to take on an emblematic quality. …

[Shetley goes on to note the idioms throughout the sonnets as well as the various puns – in the second sonnet, he points out that "Merrill’s punning etherealizes the language of his father’s profession; from the poet’s perspective the world of investments and finance seems as insubstantial as the clouds" (77) – and pauses over the concluding six lines in the fourth sonnet.] … The tonal nuances of the first line of the sestet would take a great deal of space to exhaustively unpack; what one can say briefly is that its evident mockery might be taken either way: as a ventriloquism of complacent male triumphalism or as sardonic irony; the nonchalance of the poet’s "Oh" implies both that making history is simply the natural thing for men to do, and that it’s no great accomplishment. The poet speaks from a moment in which the whole idea that history is made by great men seems increasingly questionable, and his rhyming of "history" with "story’ encourages the reader to perform the feminist dissection of "history’ into "his-story." In the final lines of the sestet Merrill obliquely returns to the subject of his own parents, seeing their "marriage on the rocks" as an instance of an archetypal situation. This archetype is handled, however, with a broad irony. "Father Time and Mother Earth" have fallen by the poet’s time to the level of advertising images, while "on the rocks," like "broken home," is a euphemism employed by a society unable to bring itself to say "divorce." It’s exactly this disinclination to confront matters directly, this way of seeing the conflict between the sexes as immemorial and irresolvable, the poet implies, that leads to scarred lives like his own. Bad language is a symptom of bad faith, a bad faith the poet’s ironic reworking of cliché is meant to expose.

from Vernon Shetley, "Public and Private in James Merrill’s Work" in After the Death of Poetry (Durham: Duke U P, 1993), 75-76, 79.

Don Adams

In "The Broken Home," the poet tells the story of his struggle to resurrect his lost name and origin. Since he has been bred to error, his only hope for salvation resides in the possibility of willing his fall. In the first of the poem's seven sonnets, the poet depicts the "break" in consciousness, or "fall" into the unconscious, that marks the first stage of his quest:

[lines 1-14]

The family in the window "gleaming like fruit" prompts the poet's identity crisis by reminding him of his own "fruitlessness." A child provides its parents with irrefutable proof of the self's substantiality. According to Freud, "At the most touchy point in the narcissistic system, the immortality of the ego, which is so hard pressed by reality, security is achieved by taking refuge in the child" (FR 556). William Shakespeare too repeatedly returned to this point in the sonnets when addressing the childless fair youth: "For having traffic with thyself alone, / Thou of thyself thy sweet self does deceive" (#4), and "Thou single wilt prove none" (#8). The poet of "The Broken Rome" lacks the narcissistic reassurance of the child since he has chosen, or has been fated, to occupy a sunless/sonless room. He has no living proof of his past, nothing to show for yesterday's "milk," which we might read here as semen. But the phrase "thrown out yesterday's milk" also implies the poet's willingness to break with this past. Paradoxically, this break is made possible only by "digging up the past," as the poet begins his journey into the unconscious world of time lost.

Merrill's guide into this underworld—the "floor below" the life of the conscious present—is a "book of maxims." This indicates to us that he is making a verbal and metaphorical quest. The purpose of his quest is finally and simply to use art to save life, to rely upon the power of the quickening imaginative flame and the stirring word to make his ideal world—the world of the life that is lived in art—"as real / At least as the people upstairs," the world of the actual child he will never have, the posterity that has been sacrificed to the "tongue of fire" in order to give that flame a voice.

Upstairs is where the primal family lives, the "ideal" family that has been incorporated into the poet's ego as an ideal by which it measures itself. According to Freud, each of us is drawn to "set up an ideal in himself by which he measures his actual ego"; "from the point of view of the ego this formulation would be the condition of repression" (GPT 74). Freud has further asserted that the ego can successfully fight this repression, which represents societal as well as parental expectations, by accepting the essential "truth" of the ego-ideal's accusations while at the same time forcing the ego-ideal to see its hypocrisy. By such a sublimation, the ego in effect says to the ego ideal: "You are correct in your criticism of me (in Merrill's case, the ego-ideal's criticism of his childlessness) but fail to acknowledge that, since you are my own creation, and I am, in a sense, your creation, you, too, are culpable." Through this process of identification, the ego brings the ego-ideal back into line with its perceived reality .

Before this reidentification can occur, however, the ego-quester must come to recognize the way in which the parental figures of authority and repression, which prompted the formation of the ego-ideal, survive in the idealized psyche. In the second and third sonnets of "The Broken Home," the poet's quest is to rediscover who his parents really were and are. (The poet's actual parents and the parents who have survived in his ego-ideal are not identical, but they are necessarily related. ) Merrill begins his search by seeking to define and understand his father, the primary mover, according to Freud, behind an individual's creation of the repressive ego-ideal (El 26). We will note that the poet's quest is simultaneously into the past and into the unconscious:

[lines 15-28]

The most telling phrase in this bitterly humorous sonnet is "too late now." The poet recognizes that he has inherited his father's faults. We can read the sonnet as a series 0f warnings to the self. The casually irreverent tone that the poet adopts toward his father serves to emphasize the son's guilty repudiation of the father's failures.

The father's world view is linear. He thinks of life as a race with and against time, which is given tangible form in the world "below" as "money." The point of the race is "to win" as much money as possible in the time provided. The father's abrupt death at the end of the sonnet alerts us to the danger of living life according to this linear model: for money is not time.

The archetypal sky-father is by nature ignorant of death. Northrop Frye has written that the sky-father lives in "a world made, not born" (SS 112). To him, the sun rises miraculously each morning and disappears, just as miraculously, each night. By contrast, the earth-mother's world is dependent on the morning-to-night, birth-to-death cycle for continuation. From her point of view, death is not only natural, but necessary. The poet's father aligns himself with this archetypal feminine cycle by virtue of his marriage to a " green pride" every thirteen years, resulting in his several "chilled wives / In sable orbit." But the main thrust of his life is linear, and we find an inherent and tragic irony in the fact that, despite his best efforts to outgrow the "cloud banks" of his origins, he must make the cyclical return through his death to the eternal world he has forsaken. The father's ultimate failure is the result of his near-total investment in the time-bound race below, which causes him to lose sight of his divine and immortal origins.

The father turns a blind eye to the eternal. His "soul" has been "eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex / And business." In the terms of the Freudian family drama upon which Merrill is so obviously drawing for this poem, the father's business is sex. His blindness represents the Oedipal struggle that he has inherited and is seeking to pass on to his children. But he encounters opposition in his poet-son. The son's early observation of his father's blindness has prompted his own decision to remain childless. Seeing how his father was deceived by the self-created mirror of sex and business—the image given is of one staring into a mirror in which the pupil of the eye sees only the endless "black hole" of itself reflected back—the child chooses to avoid creating a self-deceiving mirror of his own.

But the psychological self requires narcissistic reflection in order to believe in its very existence. In this poem, we see how the poet is attempting to create, in and through art, a substitute mirror for the child-mirror he has forsaken. The poet's effort to create such a mirror proves that he is no longer simply rebelling against heredity. He has decided to accept his inheritance, if only in the poem, which becomes the symbol of the missing child and the poet's payment to posterity .

Such a view of the creative act is essentially anti-Freudian. Freud would have us view any artistic effort as a defensive maneuver in the face of heredity, the ubiquitous father. Merrill seems to be following his earlier and more primary influence, Oscar Wilde, in adopting a more enabling view of heredity in this poem. In The Critic as Artist, Wilde argued that the artist creates his "mirror" not as a reaction against heredity but as an action enabled by heredity. Accepting our inherited limitations, we paradoxically earn the right to exercise free will, but only through the imagination, in the world of art and of the mind:

Heredity has become, as it were, the warrant for the contemplative life. It has shown us that we are never less free than when we try to act. It has hemmed us round with the nets of the hunter, and written upon the wall the prophecy of our doom. We may not watch it, for it is within us. We may not see it, save in a mirror that mirrors the soul. (1,040)

The contemplative life does not guard against but simply mirrors the actions of heredity. Passive contemplation liberates through the imaginative activity it prompts. It enables us to construct a mirror within the world of the mind:

While in the sphere of practical and external life [Heredity] has robbed energy of its freedom and activity of its choice, in the subjective sphere, where the soul is at work, it comes to us, this terrible shadow, with many gifts, gifts of strange temperaments and subtle susceptibilities, gifts of wild ardours and chill moods of indifference, complex multiform gifts of thought that are at variance with each other, and passions that war against themselves. (1,040)

The ambivalence inherent in all true art, its "wild ardours and chill moods," is at least the partial result of "this terrible shadow," heredity, which cannot be conquered but may be appeased. The imaginative effort of appeasement guarantees our freedom within what Wallace Stevens called the "vital boundary, in the mind" (PEM 368).

Merrill continues his work of appeasement within "The Broken Home" by distancing himself from his parents, allowing them to stand apart as universal archetypes. This maneuver in the third sonnet enables the poet to envision his parents as victims of necessity, like himself.

[lines 29-42]

The poet gives us a general and archetypal view of the struggle between the sexes. The woman is veiled, faceless, and her story is the same the world round, as the poet makes clear with the three male names, each of a different ethnic origin. She emerges from a "wine-dark car," an allusion to Homer's wine-dark sea, the mother of us all and the mythological origin of Venus, the goddess of love, who is mythically responsible for the struggle between man and woman. This ongoing struggle is suggested by the " electric" quality of the car. An electric current requires opposing poles, positive and negative, male and female. The man's crime is making "history," conducting the business of society and culture, while the woman is "tending the house," protecting her natural and archetypal interests.

The child's role in this primal struggle becomes clear in sonnet four, in which the poet recreates the child' s Oedipal drama:

[lines 43-56]

We have returned from the world of mythical archetype to the private world of Merrill's childhood. Merrill tells us elsewhere, perhaps facetiously, that the scene described in this sonnet is based upon memories of a childhood poem: "I had written at least one poem when I was seven or eight. It was a poem about going with the Irish setter into my mother's room—an episode that ended up in 'The Broken Home"' (REC 74). Whether the products of fact or fiction, the sonnet's figures are symbolic of the archetypal struggle between mother and son. Michael, the Irish setter, represents the child's "animal" instincts in the poem. He is "satyr-thighed" with head "passionately lowered," and he leads the child on an instinctive "hunt" that brings them to the mother's door. Once inside this shut door, the child finds a room full of Oedipal symbols. The blinds that "beat the sun" from the bed remind us that this son faces Oedipal "blindness" if he succumbs to his instincts and allows the mother to exert control over him. She wants to pit him against his father in an unwinnable battle for dominion. Failure to oppose the mother at this critical stage leads to psychological handicap, symbolized by Oedipus' blindness.

The child in this sonnet symbolically defeats his mother by escaping from her grasp. He undergoes a crisis of individuation in which he forces a separation between himself and his mother. In cultural terms, the son must be willing to forego maternal care in order to break with the family and become a member of society. From a psychological perspective, the son must remove himself from his position as an object for the mother's unconscious projections. He must force her to contend with him on equal terms as an individual psyche. In the terms of the quest-romance, the son must learn to love, not simply be loved.

In this drama of individuation, the archetypal mother figure is the necessary antagonist. In mythical terms she is the Great Mother, the vengeful Aphrodite in the tale of Psyche and Eros. Psychologically, she represents the unconscious, both individual and collective, against which the ego strives. Jung’s label for the Great Mother figure is the "destructive anima." In The Book of Ephraim, several figures display her characteristics (CL 35).

The mother in "The Broken Home" is given identifying attributes of this destructive mother archetype. Her hair is unnaturally dark, "of a blackness found, if ever now, in old / Engravings where the acid bit." The "acid" and the "blackness" here symbolically align the mother with the potentially destructive and consuming libidinal drives of the unconscious. When the mother wakes up, her eyes are significantly "startled strange and cold," causing the dog to slump to the floor. The dog's reaction represents the child's suppressed sexual instinct. The child's recognition of the danger inherent in the mother’s consuming love and his subsequent flight signal the beginning of his quest for a personalized Eros. He seeks a love based on choice, not necessity.

In the second, third, and fourth sonnets in the sequence, the poet-quester attempts to reacquaint himself with the archetypal parental figures in his psyche. He engages in a dual process of willfully distancing himself from these figures while consciously reidentifying with them and admitting their continuing influence in the mature self. His quest is fraught with dangers. The danger he faces in his encounter with the father is his tendency to dismiss and ridicule him, whereas the mother threatens to overcome the quester with her overpowering possessiveness. Despite the inherent dangers of the task, the quester has succeeded by the conclusion of the first four sonnets in identifying with the father's failures and refusing the mother's consuming love. He is poised for the final stage of his journey, the birth of a new self born of choice and not of necessity.

At the beginning of the fifth sonnet, we find the poet figured as a child in an upstairs bedroom, looking down from a window at his parents on the driveway below. The situation presented in the first sonnet, in which the poet on the street looks up at the family in the window, prompting his crisis, is reversed, suggesting the poet's newly won conquest over heredity.

[lines 57-70]

In the first line of the sonnet, the poet positions his parents together "on the rocks" of marital strife and archetypal opposition. In the second line he employs the colloquial "The party is over" and the mythical "It's the fall" to alert us to the crucial nature of what is about to occur.

Merrill’s parents divorced while he was still a child, but this sonnet is only superficially concerned with the parents' drama. The primary issue here is the parents' effect on the child, who feels tom between them. In Jung's system the archetypal male parent represents the ego, while the female represents the unconscious, both of whom seek dominance in the self. In the poet's refiguring of his family drama, he makes these opposed figures "love each other still." By doing so, the poet figures his return to a prelapsarian psychic state, before the development of consciousness, at which point the unconscious and conscious selves become estranged. He is placing himself in position to "fall" again so that he may do so consciously and willingly, turning what was necessity into an act of volition.

The poet overhears his parents' conversation. The accusations made by each against the other are the same accusations the ego and unconscious have continually leveled at one another. The feminine unconscious complains that she "can't stand the pace"; she resents being used in the masculine ego's linear, time-bound race for worldly success and sexual conquest. The masculine ego in turn speaks the unsavory truth when he claims that his wife, who stands here for both the psychic unconscious and the mythic Earth Mother, will "bury us all." The poet-quester hears both sides of the argument and understands that both figures, father and mother, ego and unconscious, are constrained by their natures. He recognizes that the collision between linear and cyclical world views, one based on reason and the other on instinct, is unavoidable. Understanding that no one is to blame for the psychic trauma caused by the archetypal opposition of the ego and unconscious, the poet is able to forgive both father and mother at once. This amounts to the forgiveness and acceptance of the dual nature within himself.

Merrill employs alchemical imagery to figure the poet's transformation into a psychically mature adult who accepts responsibility for both his gift from heredity and his debt to posterity. The lead soldier that "guards" the windowsill represents not only the poet’s defensiveness in regard to his ancestry but also the "base" material that is imaginatively internalized and transformed into "something" inside the poet that "grows heavy, silvery, pliable." A basic knowledge of the alchemical process leads us to the secret of this transformation. We recognize that the "heavy, silvery, pliable" material is quicksilver or Mercury, the god of alchemical transformation. According to Jung, who seems to have influenced Merrill in his use of alchemical symbolism here and elsewhere, Mercury represents "the process by which the lower and material is transformed into the higher and spiritual" (AS 237). He refers to this spirit as the symbol of the collective unconscious and as the mythical source of both good and evil, salvation and damnation (AS 247). For our purposes in reading this poem, we may justifiably consider Mercury to be the mythical symbol of Wilde's "heredity," the double-edged gift of human nature.

With the appearance of Mercury in sonnet five, the poet is given to understand the full weight of his inheritance and exclaims, "How intensely people used to feel!" With this statement, he alerts us to a fresh danger in his quest to choose necessity—the lure of the mythical Golden Age. Frye has called such idealized mythologizing of the past "projected Romance" and argued that a quester who succumbs to its allure will believe the past to be "the mirror of the future" (55 177). Such a belief leads to the idealization of heredity and posterity and to the denigration of the present. The quester who would choose necessity must exalt the present as the freely willed life of the mind, separable from heredity, a mirror that reflects reality only.

The poet recognizes this separation at the end of sonnet five when he asserts that we live our private lives, the life of the mind, in the "graveyard of good and evil." By saying so, he implicitly accepts that being is necessarily greater than its categories. The poet nonetheless recognizes that these categories may not be successfully evaded. He may not be his parents, but "They are even so to be honored and obeyed."

[lines 71-84]

In this sonnet the poet-quester attempts to defend his childlessness, the poem's originating crisis, after having reestablished relations with the parental authorities who live on in the idealized psyche. He begins by silently addressing the archetypal father-figure, whose overwhelming influence, "the tread of a stone guest," can only be escaped by attempted negation. Like Don Giovanni, the poet-quester becomes a martyr in the service of delinquency. By not buying a newspaper and not voting, the son implicitly questions the roles that his father confidently assumed.

Becoming a sinful skeptic is one of the least destructive ways to escape the father's overwhelming influence. One can act out one's rebellion "on the barricades," attacking the father figure directly, but at the risk of "life and limb." Alternatively, one may direct the aggression inward and become "mad" like Poor Tom, but madness leads to self-destruction. Faced with such alternatives, the poet has chosen the skepticism of the sinner. In an age of unbelief, such skepticism becomes a paradoxical act of faith. The creative artist's solipsistic rebellion against family and society is offered as evidence of his devotion to culture and history, proving that he is indeed "time's child."

Having made his symbolic peace with Father Time, the poet- quester has still to appease Mother Earth. Her realm of the individual and collective unconscious is immune to the anxieties of time but is rife with the dangers of the conflicting libidinal drives. According to Freud, the potentialities for life and death, procreation and destruction, reside side by side in the unconscious. The psychically healthy individual must continually balance one against the other. The procreative urge for this poet remains potential. Nevertheless, he can placate the urge through his imaginative creations in poetry. He may also placate the death-urge imaginatively, as each created poem is abandoned. The "avocado" is prompted to sprout leaves and then left to die. Small wonder that the leaves are described as "gilt." The poet ruthlessly abandons his creations when they begin to take on a "life of their own." His is the guilt of the parent who must, in fairness, accept a child's anger, since the child did not choose to be born but was the product of the parent's narcissistic demand for projection (if not of blind desire).

Having realized his responsibility and culpability as a "parent" of imaginative works, the poet finds himself able to reidentify with the family "at their window," from whom he was estranged at the poem's inception. Understanding that his parents' guilt is his own, he can view himself as a psychic "whole," as parent and child at once, both guilty and innocent. The acceptance of this paradox indicates a willingness to acknowledge the inherent contrariness of the self, which is essentially dual: conscious and unconscious, masculine and feminine. The poet makes the dual identification explicit in the sonnet's concluding line: "I am earth's no less." No less? No less than he is "time's," and no less than anyone else who has been given the unsought gift of life.

In these first six sonnets, the poet recounts his journey to and return from the underworld. Having withstood the trials of psychic dissolution in order to choose to be reborn, he is now in a position to conclude his "story" and to tell it abroad, as he is fated to do, like the ancient mariner. Throughout the poem, Merrill has been at pains to balance the individual and the archetypal. With the final sonnet, he brings both stories to a single conclusion in an effort to teach what he has learned:

[lines 85-98]

We all issue from "broken homes" and carry within us the warring factions: father and mother, ego and unconscious, society and family. None may escape heredity. But by an extreme effort, it is possible to make peace with heredity and actually "learn something" from the "ballroom ceiling's allegory," as Merrill asserted in an interview, in which he recalled "the story of how Cronus cuts off the scrotum, or 'ballroom,' of his father Uranus and throws it into the sea, where it begins to foam and shine, and the goddess of Love and Beauty is born" (REC 75). Before the quester can recognize, experience, or create "love and beauty," he must mature psychically by making destiny his choice. In order to do this, the poet of "The Broken Home" willingly "brings back the first nightmares," the submerged primal memories of patricide and incest that Freud insisted lie at the base of our psychic ladders. In sonnet two, the poet-quester mocks and belittles the father figure, resulting in the father's symbolic emasculation. And in sonnet four, he symbolically weds his mother by forcing open her shut door to reveal the figure "clad in taboos" that he "needed to touch."

Having earned his status as a psychically mature adult, the poet-quester can see the broken home for what it really is—a boarding school that is meant to be outgrown and left behind but not forgotten or destroyed. Accepting his inheritance, he has learned the secret to reading the ballroom ceiling's allegory, which comes from experience alone. He has, in effect, become the "head-master" at his own boarding school whose single pupil is his art, which he endows with the "entire story" of his inheritance. This is the story of the broken home itself, which becomes—through the poem—the poet's posterity. Left untold, this unborn child or poem had stifled the childless poet and prevented him from leaving childhood. But with the "unstiflement" of the story through the poem's birth, the poet has proven his devotion to heredity and posterity, to Father Time and Mother Earth. The poem's concluding image depicts the wedding of the poet's archetypal parents, of time (or memory) and eternity, as the poet's boyhood pet transforms into the sinking sun. This returns us to the poem's beginning in which the "son" "sinks" into the world of the unconscious as he crosses the street.

Harold Bloom has written in "The Internalization of Quest- Romance":

I think that what Blake and Wordsworth do for their readers, or can do, is closely related to what Freud does or can do for his, which is to provide both a map of the mind and a profound faith that the map can be put to a saving use. (3)

In this chapter, I have attempted to trace the development of Merrill's "map of the mind," which, before The Changing Light at Sandover, was most intricately presented in longer poems such as "The Broken Home." Other poems of similar length, such as "The Thousand and Second Night" and "From the Cupola," are arguably finer achievements, but neither is as crucial to the poet's ongoing struggle to wrest art from life. In "The Broken Home," Merrill gives us the most straightforward version of his intensely personal poetic effort to overcome childlessness, to create a world, in and through art, that is not forever on the brink of dissolution.

This poem perhaps suffers from the poet's over-willingness to equate his actual parents with the archetypal Father Time and Mother Earth, as well as from his close adherence to the Freudian family drama. But the very familiarity of these figures allows us to see Merrill's symbolism at work translating life into art.

from James Merrill's Poetic Quest.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Don Adams. Reprinted with permission.

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