blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

On "The Willowware Cup"

Richard Sáez

"Willowware Cup" (Braving the Elements) is a perfect example of the style. The poem is a meditation on dime-store "chinaware" from which Merrill wrests crazingly complex associations. The words he uses to describe the cup evoke as mysterious presences as any Yeats imagined to dwell in the English language, and the parts are intricately blended in a way to make incision or excerpts impossible.

[quotes poem]

From the imitation pattern on the cup the poet invents a legend. His story of the lovers’ departure from the father does not arise inevitably from the pattern, but as Merrill becomes lost in his reverie, the words, rising like mist from earthly attachments, return him to the flesh: "like ink in flesh, blue anchor." The fading of the pattern on the cup modulates on the word "blend," through a counterpoint of "mist" and "steam," into a tattoo worn probably by a past lover: another scene of departure. Just as the destroyer of the tattoo has been anticipated in the initial evocation of mass violence, the poem is also conscious of earthly passionate fulfillment: "hysteria," "gene," "bloom," and "stigma" (in its botanical sense of the pollen-receiving pistil). Then all focuses on the friend, as distant now as prewar China. At this juncture of two literal levels of meaning, a point on which most of Merrill’s poetry is balanced, the poem can speak about the original Chinese pattern and the friend: a paradisiacal bliss lost in the absence of cultivated uniqueness. Finally, the lost version of heaven is abstracted beyond plate and friend into pure design and color.

Steep roofs aslant, minutely tiled,
Tilted honeycombs, thunderhead blue

The poem presents a metaphysical vision in which diverse physical realities are seen against—and, thereby, seen through—a disembodied pattern. The implied metaphor between a noumenal-phenomenal dichotomy and expensive china and its cheap imitation is purposefully bizarre, as is the relationship between the tattoo and the dinnerware pattern. But this wrested comparison is typical of Merrill (more usually present in puns like "crazing" or "stigma"). The violent yoking, as artfully intentional as the catachreses of seventeenth century metaphysical poetry, helps to reveal a reality far away from earthly attachments.

From "James Merrill’s Oedipal Fire." In Harold Bloom (ed.), James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Originally Published in Parnassus 3:1 (Fall/Winter 1974). © 1974 by the Poetry in Review Foundation.

Leslie Brisman

In certain ways, Yeats represents for Merrill not only a number of specific literary debts but a vision of an old self that much of Merrill’s verse is concerned to refashion and transcend. Yeats introduced the Ouija board and its mysterious instructors, and Merrill’s supreme trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover, owes and pays a debt to Yeats for paving the way to our familiarity with these "metaphors for poetry."


Yeats represents, then, not only enormous imaginative vision but a capacity for pathos that he often goes out of his way to control or to represent as best controlled. I believe that Merrill’s turn to the device of the Ouija board is therefore a turn not just to the Yeatsian metaphor for poetry but to a Yeatsian mode of muscular control over emotion so voiced. Though Auden is the poet most there, most often overlooking the cards and actually kibbitzing or instructing the players, Yeats’s spirit hovers over the entire enterprise of The Changing Light at Sandover. Two grand lyrics, published in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959) and Braving the Elements (1972) (the first part of the trilogy, The Book of Ephraim, was published in 1976), find Merrill preparing for the long poem by toying with its machinery and something of his relation to Yeats.


The second of these poems is "Willowware Cup," and I believe it establishes the "medium" of the voices in the long poem not only by describing the teacup used on the Ouija board but by covertly describing a relationship to Yeats that involves both great attraction, and great need to represent Yeats as a figure for a past or a rejected self, over and against which Merrill will define what is most his own. Here is the poem:

[Quotes poem]

The opening two words of the poem are already a little poem in themselves, one in which a fine turn of language not only reflects but constitutes the poem’s attitude to a social problem—or rather, to a poetry of social concern. The words "mass hysteria" represent a snobbish social attitude (contempt of immigrants) mocked by the poem’s own literalism, the fact that it is talking about chinaware, not Chinese. One obvious distinction between Merrill the lyric poet on the one hand and Yeats and Auden on the other is Merrill’s almost total obliviousness to politics.

Merrill’s stance will be questioned and (in parts two and three of the trilogy) almost ignored by the higher voices that "take over," putting not just the persona JM hut the poet himself under Auden’s influence. But Merrill begins, and at various moments in The Changing Light at Sandover is reinvigorated by the thought that the truest mental warfare is fought neither in the newspaper headlines nor on the frontiers of science but at the teacup’s edge—in refining the boundaries between memory and desire, between aestheticism and concern. "Hysteria" is a disturbance in the human reproduction "plant," and "mass hysteria" is a poetic way of talking about mass production of cheap teacups. Yet if the true subject of this, as of all poems, is the particular victory of a poetic birth over the death of clay (the undifferentiation of the dust from which we come and the undifferentiation of mass production), then the vehicle is ironically closer to rather than further from the poem’s core than is the ostensible "tenor." We can call this reversal, this achievement, the opening irony of the poem, and one accessible to a reader who lingers over the first two words in context even without what I believe to be the buried allusion:

I havee hear that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay . . .

Yeats’s "Lapis Lazuli" turns against the hysteria of social concern and towards the composure of art. For Yeats, the figures sculptured in a piece of stone will represent the tranquility beyond attachment to things and persons, the tranquility of fine performers who "do not break up their lines to weep." Merrill’s figures painted on cheap china remind us, as it were, that Lear himself and even the player reciting Aeneas’ speech in Hamlet do indeed weep and make weep, that it is as much the function of poetry to move us to tears as to regain a final composure over womb-felt agony. I think Merrill’s poem is written specifically against Yeats’s, but in this we must see a larger opposition, a new emergence from the "gene pool," an emergence distinguished from the mere replica of a prewar pattern. The quarrel with Yeats means an agon with the death that is repetition of aesthetic production without new emotive life, a repetition that is figured as mass production without the individual womb. Though a concern for individualization often takes the form, in Merrill’s poetry, of the special heightening of personal reminiscence to symbolic status, actual authenticity to a particular person or time is not really an issue. It matters no more for Merrill’s "Willowware Cup" that "Lapis Lazuli" is a pre-World War II pattern than it does for Yeats’s poem that a zeppelin suggests World War I bombing; Yeats’s poem represents a certain aristocratic aestheticism we always want to call "pre-war," though the war changes. "Laps Lazuli" illustrates a stance toward art which one can glean from Merrill’s poem without Yeats, but which one understands all the more poignantly for the new poet’s need not to succumb to a "dated" indifference.

Though one can read Merrill’s poem without "Lapis Lazuli," it helps to have Yeats. It helps to have Yeats’s description of two Chinamen climbing upwards towards wisdom, if only to have a basis to ask why Merrill chooses a scene his poem interprets as being that of a father saying farewell to his daughter and her lover. In teaching the poem, to ourselves or to others, we need to come upon the awareness that Merrill has chosen his scene neither "out of the blue" nor out of Yeats’s lapis lazuli blue but out of the need to contrast the most heart-felt sorrows with their two-dimensional artistic representation. The womb is stirred for the loss of children or lovers who go on to lead their own lives—whether one has a womb or not. Hence the melancholy of Merrill’s comment on the father "He must by now be immensely / Wise, and have given up earthly attachments, and all that." Merrill may be said to be reacting ironically against Yeats-as-poetic-father and against the detachment of Yeats’s Chinamen, but the psychological defense of reversal or turning against his own, all-too-human self in the dismissive phrase "and all that" exposes Merrill’s deep heart’s core—what he wishes to claim as a pathos all his own, characteristically brushed aside by Yeats.

At this point Merrill’s poem takes a turn so uniquely his that calling it an X-ing out of a precursor’s move or a creation ex nihilo leaves the lines equally awesome in their power and originality. This father, "rising in mist," is imagined to ascend not into a "half-way house" of Yeatsian wisdom but into the incarnate form of homoerotic desire, the sailor detained from his ship. For Yeats, the Greek wind that blows into the verse paragraph preceding the turn to the lapis lazuli stone itself brings only the detached beauty of classic sculpture—handsome bodies covered with "draperies that seemed to rise / When sea wind swept the corner." For Merrill, however, the turn to a Greek thought becomes an occasion for an image of such poignance as to hold its own against all clichés about Greek love, sailors flight, and the impermanence of passion tattooed only skin-deep. The departing "destroyer" is both ship and lover, the "stigma throbbing intricate" are both those of the needle and those of the phallus—or rather the heart, for it is truly the holiness of the heart’s affections, not the nature of sexual orientation, that is the poem’s topic. If these stigma throb "Only to blend into a crazing texture," they throb not for fancy’s sake, in order to connect tattooing to the cracked surface of chinaware the way Yeats associates "every accidental crack or dent" in the lapis lazuli with a line of the landscape. They throb beyond the patternings of poetry to give birth to human meaning, human feeling, that "crazes" the mind by upsetting and complicating it.

Writing of the turn to the stone itself in "Lapis Lazuli," Jon Stallworthy comments,

The transition from the handiwork of the Greek sculptor to that of the Chinese is made without a word of explanation; simply with the space between paragraphs. A jump so daring could only be brought off by a master poet at the height of his confident powers. He outstrides his readers, but knows he has them on a leash.

One could almost argue that Merrill had in mind not only Yeats’s transition but Stallworthy’s comment on it, for it seems vain to praise Yeats’s transition beside the shocking starkness of Merrill’s:

Only to blend into a crazing texture
You are far away

The first line of the couplet completes the old, carried-over thought and connects the disquiet of the (fleshly) landscape with the disquiet of the (china) sky. Then, suddenly, one is lifted as though by the scruff of the neck from scrutiny of images across the immensity of space separating the representation of desire from an ultimate "thou." Perhaps it would be wrong to identify "you" as Yeats, just as it would be wrong to specify "you" as D.J. or another object of desire. But granted that Merrill’s poem emerges as a love poem while Yeats’s aspires to an excited reverie somehow beyond desire, this "you" is not a lover but the You behind poems—or rather, towards whom one can say all poetic discourse is directed. Neither father nor lover, "real precursor" nor "real friend," this "You" comes into being in the crazed texture of poems as we turn. This means that the turn of the poem is a turn against Yeats, against an ideal of detachment that Merrill is associating, through "Lapis Lazuli," with Yeats. The turn away is also a turn to—to the affirmation of desire for a "you," to desire itself. Like Jesus invoking the Father in the Lord’s prayer through the act of forgiving those who trespass against him, the poet discovers power and kingdom and glory in forgiving the "you" who has trespassed in the sense of having walked across and out of the poet’s life. Yeats’s wise men themselves walk away from the world of desire as they climb a mountain of transcendence. And the poet anticipates them, racing ahead to the half-way house they are headed towards, never to reach. "and I / Delight to imagine them seated there." For Merrill, however, transcendence means overgoing absence through apostrophe. The spirit of this transcendence becomes the bread and wine of the life of the affections:

But this lone, chipped vessel, if it fills,
Fills for you with something warm and clear

"If it fills" may be a strange and wonderful concession to the vagaries of desire, but behind that expression of chance is the certainty of the rejection of Yeatsian detachment, the coldness of his beautiful stone. The warmth and clarity Merrill substitutes are the warmth of the heart’s affections and the clarity of its imagination. While there is no doubt something platitudinous in our calling "this lone, chipped vessel" a figure for the poem itself, or every poem, Merrill’s phrase does go beyond what Harold Bloom calls the "breaking of the vessels" to discover, in the new trope, a form of what the kabbalists called tikkun (restoration) and modern Hebrew calls tikkun alom (social action, literally "restoration of the world"). What is restored, to undo a Stevensian trope, is a world of human meaning, of human feeling—a not-so-foreign song.

In the final four lines of Merrill’s poem, we move beyond the "daemonization" or empowering of the spirit that brought us face to face with the poem’s "you." The penultimate couplet has about it a special poignance we can associate with a more distanced outlook on desire. It used to be that dime-store china was easily replaced, and it used to be (in a fantasy of sexual plenitude in a time of innocence) that homoerotic relationships were disposable because replaceable—"more trouble to mend than replace." This is not a comment on changing mores nor even, I think, about growing old, but an awareness of the deepening of the version of heaven that the poem itself has to offer. Merrill’s poignant turn to mending itself mends a crack in the Yeatsian design. Yeats’s carefree optimism seems like a carelessness with history: "All things fall and are built again / And those that build them again are gay." Merrill’s poem lingers more over the awareness of how necessary but how hard it is to mend, to build again.

It is, of course, a misunderstanding of "gaiety" in the sense of willed good-humor rather than homoerotic desire that Merrill is correcting in correcting Yeats; Merrill is not swerving from Yeats by posing a new sexual meaning of "gay" against the old, Nietzschian mode of acceptance. But I think there is an attempt to sum up, as the quintessentially Yeatsian attitude to death, a gaiety that transfigures by rising above the involvement in the passions.

from ‘Merrill’s Yeats" in Harold Bloom (ed.), James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Ó 1985 by Leslie Brisman.

Helen Vendler

As a historian of the phases of sensuality, Merrill is unequaled in our century. His best poetry (a prism of the opalescent spectrum of the sensual) describes moments so elusive to specification that his founding a music for them is a genuinely startling act. Episodes of intense sensations are extinguished as passion but sustained as art. Flashing with ironies and inventions, rapid in movement, intricate in language, these poems dazzle before they convince, and convince, subsequently, because of their dazzle (the right way for a poem to work). In "Willowware Cup," for instance, love undergone becomes a tattoo: "like ink in flesh, blue anchor // Needled upon drunkenness while its destroyer / Full steam departs, the stigma throbbing, intricate -- / Only to blend into a crazing texture."

from Helen Vendler, "James Merrill," in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1988). 352.

Vernon Shetley

Symbolism turns on an ambiguity between literal and metaphoric, or if ambiguity is too strong a word, on an extension and elaboration of metaphor to the point where it threatens to gain priority over the objects it modifies. … Merrill does not often push to the boundaries of metaphor … but often enough a simple construct of likeness exfoliates into a richly imagined (or described) scene of its own, moving far from its metaphorical function. …

[Shetley cites the lines that begin "Soon, of these May mornings" and end "into a crazing texture."]

This extraordinarily condensed passage seems to encapsulate an entire narrative through a rapid series of substitutions. The fading of the cup’s colors is likened to the spread of tattooer’s ink through skin, but the metaphorical function of the image quickly moves to the background as it is elaborated into a richly detailed vignette: a drunken sailor receiving a tattoo in the shape of a blue anchor, meanwhile missing the sailing of the warship to whose crew he belongs. Richard Saez, in his brilliant unpacking of this passage, suggests that the tattoo that comes to the poet’s mind here belongs to a former lover. … {T]he critic’s temptation to provide an autobiographical referent is an index of the powerful "reality effect" generated by this passage; indeed, this narrative moment seems vastly more real than what it ostensibly modifies, which after all is only a tattooed representation. Ordinarily, the modified object in a metaphor holds a kind of ontological priority over the modifying vehicle; when a poet describes his lover as like a flower, the lover is concrete and specific, the flower generic and, in a fashion, abstract. Merrill’s metaphors frequently reverse this priority, a reversal that corresponds to the elevation, in his poetry, of aesthetic constructs over observed facts, his sense that "life [is] fiction in disguise."

from Vernon Shetley, "Public and Private in James Merrill’s Work" in After the Death of Poetry (Durham: Duke U P, 1993), 68-69.

Return to James Merrill