- James Merrill: Knowing Innocence, and: James Merrill and W. H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence
James Merrill died in 1995, and it's too soon to know if he will be ranked among the major poets of mid-century America. Merrill's Collected Poems was published in 2001, and the record of his long and brilliant career inspired praise such as Helen Vendler's on the "Mozartian" quality [End Page 459] of his oeuvre. Since then a Collected Novels and Plays (2002), a Collected Prose (2004), and an edition of his long poem The Changing Light at Sandover (2006) have appeared; but these volumes have received relatively little notice, and Merrill's reputation seems in a post-mortem slump. (The 2005 Blackwell Concise Companion to Twentieth-Century American Poetry does not even mention him.) Critics often underestimate the emotional intensity of Merrill's poetry and consider him, for example, a poet of "medium range elegance and formal bent."1 Editions of Merrill's letters and journals as well as the forthcoming biography by Langdon Hammer should correct this misapprehension and renew interest in his poetry.
Meanwhile, Merrill's reputation is sustained by academic studies. Reena Sastri's Knowing Innocence provides a comprehensive guide to Merrill's lyric poems and also illuminates his epic poetry and fiction. Piotr Gwiazda's Merrill and Auden is a scholarly account of the relationship between two major poets that continued to develop long after Auden's death. Sastri approaches Merrill as a formalist, and claims for him only a "place among postwar America's most significant poets" (4), but she is a sensitive close reader who demonstrates Merrill's gifts for indelible rhythms, brilliant images, and themes that are both serious and witty. She has an ear not only for word plays and rhymes but also for allusions to and echoes of modern poets such as W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens, and for romantic poets such as William Blake, John Keats, and William Wordsworth. Her readings of major poems such as "Self-Portrait in Tyvek¯ Windbreaker," "Press Release," and "Oranges," even though she is unconcerned with them as anguished love poems, are detailed and illuminating.
Although the subject of the book is innocence, as if it were an old-fashioned theme study, the book's real achievement is to demonstrate the intertextuality through which Merrill absorbs and renews the themes of precursors such as Wordsworth and Stevens. Among these themes are the nature of innocence, our perception of the natural world, individual freedom, and the identity of the self. The meaning of innocence, however, whether it's the supposed innocence of childhood, nature, science, or even language, shifts throughout the book in a sometimes strained attempt to make it seem the major obsession of Merrill's life. The theme is clearest in the discussion in the book's first chapter of Merrill's myth of lost childhood innocence in a poem such as "Scenes of Childhood." Sastri argues that she will demonstrate Merrill's early "struggle to sever childhood and innocence" and then show in Chapter Five that the later poems of A Scattering of Salts (1995) "bring childhood and innocence back together again" (13). She believes that Merrill "relinquishes the idea of childhood innocence" (25) after "Scenes of Childhood" (Water Street, 1962), but he never in fact embraced it, even in his student poems at Amherst College or in those of his earliest poetry volume The Black Swan (1946), which Sastri surprisingly does not discuss. One of the Black Swan poems, "Perspectives of a Lonesome Eye," begins: "In a green twilight the avenues of our love / Are shadowed by an unseen running child," leading to the statement that "emotions are least artless / When most experienced."2 This precocious poem then proceeds to ring all the changes on Merrill's dialectic of innocence and experience that pervade his work. Sastri is a perceptive guide...