Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, the first complete biography of the poet to appear since his death in 1995, is not only a welcome and necessary addition to twentieth-century poetry criticism: it is a superb example of the literary biographer’s art in its own right. Merrill aficionados—and it is to be hoped that this volume will add to their number—will be gratified that the task has been carried out with such grace and verve. More so in that writing a biography of Merrill poses a couple of specific challenges. First, in his poetry and in particular his memoir, A Different Person (1993), Merrill wrote brilliantly (if selectively) about his own life, making the subject something of a competitor with his own biographer. Second, Merrill rejected depth as a metaphor for the self from the very first: his writing delights in surfaces, and he was convinced that, in the words of Ephraim (the first spirit he and David Jackson met through the Ouija board), “Any surface concentrated upon will produce messages” (231). And so what if surfaces can be [End Page 261] deceptive, artificial, or ephemeral? So can our selves. Poetry is emphatically a means of giving order to all this, hence Merrill’s famous commitment to form, but the orders thus established can only be provisional. A self perpetually under construction, and moreover profoundly aware of itself as such, makes for richer subject matter for biography even as it denies the biographer easy narrative satisfactions.
On the first score, Hammer frequently allows Merrill to tell the story of his early life in his own words, especially concerning the time he spent in Rome from 1950–52. These years form the subject of A Different Person, a part of his life which, Hammer notes, Merrill used to stand for the whole. Hammer judiciously steps in here and there to correct too-brazen departures from fact but generally follows Merrill’s synecdochic approach by using the transformation of those Roman years into A Different Person to lay bare the enduring creative process through which Merrill made his life into art. On the second score, in order to capture that lifelong process of drafting and redrafting a self, James Merrill: Life and Art is structured around a series of detailed readings of Merrill’s most significant poems, including “An Urban Convalescence,” “A Tenancy,” “The Thousand and Second Night,” “The Broken Home,” “From the Cupola,” “To My Greek,” “Lost in Translation,” “Prose of Departure,” “Self-Portrait in Tyvek(TM) Windbreaker,” and, of course, The Changing Light at Sandover. These discussions are, without fail, subtle and insightful; the poetry criticism contained within the book is worth the price of admission alone.
Merrill’s detractors have depicted him as a mere versifier whose virtuosic command of traditional form amounts to an arid academicism (a charge that tends to neglect The Changing Light at Sandover almost entirely). Hammer’s readings rebut these criticisms through their close attention to Merrill’s nuances. They show how the lyric poems subtly revise traditional forms, as in the loosely-rhymed pentameter verse paragraphs that become one of Merrill’s trademarks and combine forms in new and unexpected ways, as in the thrilling pirouette from those verse paragraphs to Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat quatrains in “Lost in Translation,” probably Merrill’s finest shorter poem. Punning on stanza, Merrill described traditional forms as rooms inhabited by others for centuries but still apt to reveal hidden nooks and crannies to their newest occupants.
But the fact remains that formalism became an increasingly unfashionable commitment over the course of Merrill’s career, and, even today, the reader who is ignorant of, or indifferent towards, form is unlikely to warm to him. Where his contemporaries were concerned, I suspect that Merrill’s fabled wealth (based on the evidence here, habitually overestimated) caused his formalist proclivities to seem decadent to an extent that they may not have, had he been a different person. Indeed, even as The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959) announced Merrill...