Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.4 (2001) 418-439
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Views from the Rosebrick Manor:
Poetic Authority in James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover
I must warn the reader to beware of applying to persons what is here meant only of books in the most literal sense. So, when Virgil is mentioned, we are not to understand the person of a famous poet called by that name, but only certain sheets of paper, bound up in leather, containing in print the works of the said poet, and so of the rest.
--Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books, The Bookseller's Preface
The dark-blue cover page of the paperback edition of the text in question reads like this: "james merrill the changing light at sandover a poem." 1 The inside cover pages of this 560-page tome offer a gallery of family album photographs: three women, among them avant-garde film director Maya Deren; several men, including English poet W. H. Auden; and what seems to be an early photo of the author (marked "JM") and his companion David Jackson ("DJ"). The title page informs us that the poem comprises the whole of "The Book of Ephraim," Mirabell's Book of Number, and Scripts for the Pageant (which appeared in 1976, 1978, and 1980, respectively), as well as a new coda, "The Higher Keys." The text itself is divided into sections first marked after the letters of the alphabet, then the numbers 0 to 9, and finally by three headings "Yes," "&," and "No." Opening the book at random, we notice that the regular script is combined with chunks of uppercase letter text. While the regular script features iambic pentameter occasionally shaped into rhymes and stanzas, the passages written in caps tend to form fourteen-syllable line-units. The publisher's blurbs on the back cover list Merrill in the same breath with Yeats, Dante, Homer, and Milton.
The Changing Light at Sandover is the final title James Merrill gave to the epic that chronicles his and collaborator David Jackson's experiences at a Ouija board. Composed from transcripts of Merrill and Jackson's communications with deceased friends and otherworldly spirits via the homemade board, the trilogy revises universally accepted facts and fables [End Page 418] concerning Earth's distant past and imminent future. First indications of Merrill's interest in artistic possibilities of the Ouija board can be found in his novel The Seraglio and poems "Voices from the Other World" and "The Will." Merrill's early lyrical and narrative poetry combines cultivated aestheticism and tacit autobiography, a discreet sense of craft and guarded confessional impulse that makes intricacies of personal life, both past and present, seem its only valuable subject matter. This is certainly the thematic scope of the trilogy's first installment, "The Book of Ephraim," which the poet fashioned irregularly for almost twenty years. Based on informal conversations with a youthful Greek Jew from the first century A.D., the poem concerns itself with the two mediums' dead friends and family, like Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, avant-garde film director Maya Deren, and Merrill's father. But Ephraim also instructs Merrill and Jackson about reincarnation, the bureaucracy of the afterlife's nine stages, and its elaborate system of patrons and representatives. The poem frequently alludes to the method of its own composition, expressing Merrill's skepticism about the validity of the undertaking, featuring characters of the lost novel in which he first intended to relate his experiences at the board, and recording his travels around the world during two previous decades.
The poem takes a surprisingly different turn in Mirabell and Scripts. Although each of these two installments is much lengthier than "Ephraim," both took Merrill only two years to transcribe and prepare for print. Despite its occult method of composition, the work now purports to be a poem of science. With the assistance of W. H. Auden and Greek friend Maria Mitsotáki, the mediums can only helplessly witness as...