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  • “The central hollowness”:James Merrill and the Annihilation of the Self
  • Johanna Hoorenman (bio)

The central hollowness is that pure winterThat does not change but isAlways brilliant ice and air.

—James Merrill, “The Black Swan”

James merrill's strange—and at times inaccessible— trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover is very different in conception from his lyrical poetry. Merrill displays a distinct concern with appearances and aesthetics in his lyrical poetry, whereas the Sandover trilogy is much more political and spiritual in nature, focusing on content—largely transcribed from Ouija board sessions—over form. Merrill repeatedly expresses discomfort with his own predilection for form over content in poems that feature key themes of appearances, impressions, metaphor, and poetic form. This concern with the question of form versus content appears in “The Black Swan,” “Transfigured Bird,” “The Octopus,” and “To a Butterfly.” The conflict between form and content is only partly resolved in these poems, however, through an evocation of the sublime as a poetic gesture to that which cannot be expressed.

This function of the sublime is most clearly explained by Mary Arensberg in her introduction to The American Sublime. Here, Arensberg identifies the search for the sublime as “a way of knowing beyond the human threshold.” “Limen,” she points out, “boundary or threshold from the Latin, is both the etymological and philosophical root of the sublime. Poems get written, then, because that threshold has never been crossed or articulated; for to transgress that boundary, to speak with the tongue of a god would be to achieve the sublime and [End Page 61] also silence” (Arensberg 1, emphasis added). It is no coincidence that the poems mentioned above all take animals as their subject matter. Though Merrill is not overtly an “animal poet” or “nature poet,” he repeatedly employs animals as emblems for the enigmatic or unknowable. Such animal emblems offer “a way of knowing beyond the human threshold,” emphasizing the role of the sublime in expressing (or functioning as a metaphor for) the unknowable. These poems also depict the sublime in the Kantian sense of the fear of the annihilation of the self. It is this Kantian sublime that reappears in the Sandover trilogy, most notably in the form of the nuclear sublime and the existence of black matter in the books Mirabell and Scripts for the Pageant. Although Merrill has created an epic of supernatural proportions in Sandover that seems to stand in contrast to his lyrical poetry, the poems themselves use very similar imagery to express allied concerns about the annihilation of the ego—concerns that underlie both his aesthetic lyrical poetry and his more politically oriented epic.

Merrill's work has been often criticized as aesthetic, trivial and empty, lacking feeling or emotional weight. James Dickey, for instance, described Merrill as the most accomplished of “the elegants”: “poets who have done everything perfectly according to quite acceptable standards, and have just as surely stopped short of real significance, real engagement,” writing poems that “drive you mad over the needless artificiality, prim finickiness, and determined inconsequence of it all” (97). This charge of artificiality may be partly ascribed to Merrill's enthusiasm for form at a time in which other poets were veering towards free verse, experimentation and more explicit or so-called “confessional modes” of writing. Helen Vendler describes Merrill's language as “full of arabesques, fancifulness, play of wit, and oblique metaphor” (“Divine Comedies” 134). Indeed, wordplay and metaphor are crucial elements of Merrill's poetry, largely due to his self-confessed propensity for “seeing double”: seeing and speaking of things in other terms, perceiving the world in multi-faceted ways, and demonstrating a keen awareness of the limitations of observing and representing reality. A poetic Impressionist, Merrill demonstrates far more faith in the relevance of the appearance of an object—the impression that it makes on a subjective mind—than on any supposed Truth behind the observation. Poems such as “The Cosmological Eye” and “The Green Eye” address impressionism directly, as does the much-quoted stanza from “To A Butterfly”: [End Page 62]

Goodness, how tired one growsJust looking through a prism:Allegory, symbolism.I've tried, Lord knows,To...


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