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Merrill, James (1926-1995)  

James Merrill's significance as a gay writer lies in his deliberate use of a personal relationship to fuel his poetry.

Born on March 3, 1926, to Charles Merrill, the stockbroker-founder of Merrill/Lynch, and Helen Ingram, James Merrill enjoyed the blessings of wealth and the culture of leisure. His Prussian-English nanny, whose sister was decorated for playing duets with the Queen Mother of Belgium, taught him French and German.

His parents divorced when he was twelve, and his nanny was let go. When Merrill was a senior in high school, his father collected some of his poems and short stories in a volume and had it printed under the title Jim's Book. After graduating from the Lawrenceville School, Merrill matriculated at Amherst College but interrupted his studies to serve in the army in World War II.

He graduated in 1947, and four years later, having published his book First Poems, he suffered from writer's block and sought psychiatric help in Rome. Settling in Stonington, Connecticut, on Water Street, he spent half of each year in Greece until 1979. From then until his death he divided his residence between Stonington and Key West, where his lover David Jackson kept a home.

Homosexual themes surface in early Merrill poems, but they are sometimes buried in metaphor, as in "A Renewal," a short lyric in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959). Since Merrill was never secretive about his sexual preference, his poems do not need excessive decoding: Anyone who knows the basic facts of his life can understand the personae of his poems. For example, there is an undercurrent of his relationship with David Jackson as early as "David's Night in Veliès," a lyric in The Fire Screen (1969).

The most notorious of Merrill's books are the trilogy in which Jackson appears as a co-medium using a Ouija board in an exciting foray into the occult. The two call up various dead poets (Auden, Yeats), four archangels, and assorted figures from Merrill's past. Dialogue from the spirits appears in uppercase letters.

The Ouija board experiments began in an August 23, 1955, session with Jackson's wife Doris; within a week, Merrill had composed "Voices from the Other World," the first of the poems using material from the board. The first part of the trilogy was published as "The Book of Ephraim" in Divine Comedies. Mirabell: Books of Number followed two years later, and Scripts for the Pageant appeared in 1980.

The three were combined into The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982, with a coda, "The Higher Keys," in which twenty-six spirits return for a final visit. Merrill is asked to read the entire trilogy aloud, and the book ends with the word Admittedly, the first word of "The Book of Ephraim."

In addition to his volumes of poetry, Merrill published two novels. The Seraglio (1957), written in traditional novel style, concerns a young man named Francis Tanning who, unlike his rich father, is not interested in women. In a grisly scene, Francis, confused over his sexual identity, tries to castrate himself. The protagonist has been read as a thinly disguised portrait of Merrill himself: Midway in the novel, Francis begins to use a Ouija board.

The (Diblos) Notebook (1965) is a radically different kind of experimental novel. Conceived as a notebook, the novel attempts to simulate the act of writing, employing false plots, shifts in point of view, and crossed-out words.

Although Merrill's chief work, his trilogy, may read at times as a tedious voyage into the esoteric, it is significant in its ever-present endorsement of a gay relationship. Under the drama of the Ouija board and bursts of poetic color, the playful use of terza rima and other traditional verse forms, there are touches of ordinary solicitude for the author's lover: David's toothache, David's operation.

Merrill's significance as a gay writer lies in his deliberate use of a personal relationship to fuel his poetry. He contends, in Mirabell, that gay love actuates the creation of poetry and music. Merrill had one of the most musical ears in modern poetry: His beautiful turns of rhyme are anomalous in an age that privileges free verse.

George Klawitter


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A portrait of James Merrill by Stathis Orphanos.
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Humphries, Jefferson. "James Merrill's Voice within the Mirror." in Losing the Text: Readings in Literary Desire. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. 21-54.

Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Lehman, David and Charles Berger, eds. James Merrill: Essays in Criticism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Lurie, Alison. Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. New York: Viking, 2001.

McClatchy, J. D. "The Art of Poetry XXXI: James Merrill." Paris Review 84 (Summer 1982): 184-219.

Moffett, Judith. James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

White, Edmund. "The Inverted Type: Homosexuality as a Theme in James Merrill's Prophetic Books." Literary Visions of Homosexuality. Stuart Kellogg, ed. New York: Haworth, 1983. 47-52.


    Citation Information
    Author: Klawitter, George  
    Entry Title: Merrill, James  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 20, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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