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Life and Works

James Merrill (1926-1995) James Merrill was born in New York City to Charles Edward Merrill and Helen Ingram Merrill. His father was a founding partner in Merrill, Lynch & Company, and so he grew up as part of a social, cultural, and financial elite. He developed a very early passion for languages ad literature thanks to his Governess (who taught him French and German) and his parents' support of his precocious literary efforts. Like some other poets of his generation, he had to postpone the culmination of his studies in order to serve in the army during WWII. He eventually graduated from Amherst College with top honors (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1947, with a thesis on metaphor in Proust. Before that he had already published work in Poetry and The Kenyon Review, proving himself a most promising young poet, with the added benefit of not needing to publish or teach to earn a living. His first book of poems, The Black Swan, appeared right after the war, in 1946. Supported by the family fortune, he travelled incessantly through Europe and Asia, to finally settle down with his companion David Jackson in Stonington, a small town on the Connecticut coast.

He would also live in Greece and Florida (in Key West, where he coincided with his friend the poet Elizabeth Bishop). His 1951 First Poems were received with more or less general consensus as to his technical mastery of the language and its resources, but also the feeling that some kind of soul was lacking (again very much like Elizabeth Bishop only five years earlier: polished and elegant form but perhaps only that, according to some critics). He then flirted with other forms, including two plays (The Bait and The Immortal Husband) of lukewarm success and a novel (The Seraglio). It was not until 1959 with the publication of The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace that there was finally unambiguous critical acclaim for a maturing poet on the right track.


There was still the odd discordant voice pointing to the remoteness--both geographical and cultural--of his classical motifs, and the decadent aesthetics, but overall he made an impact in the American poetry scene with that collection. In any case his following book, the 1962 collection Water Street, consolidated his reputation as a powerful lyric voice among mid-century poets, now less oriented toward empty aestheticism and more focused on the properly human dimensions, especially love.

He would also live in Greece and Florida (in Key West, where he coincided with his friend the poet Elizabeth Bishop). His 1951 First Poems were received with more or less general consensus as to his technical mastery of the language and its resources, but also the feeling that some kind of soul was lacking (again very much like Elizabeth Bishop only five years earlier: polished and elegant form but perhaps only that, according to some critics). He then flirted with other forms, including two plays (The Bait and The Immortal Husband) of lukewarm success and a novel (The Seraglio). It was not until 1959 with the publication of The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace that there was finally unambiguous critical acclaim for a maturing poet on the right track.

There was still the odd discordant voice pointing to the remoteness--both geographical and cultural--of his classical motifs, and the decadent aesthetics, but overall he made an impact in the American poetry scene with that collection. In any case his following book, the 1962 collection Water Street, consolidated his reputation as a powerful lyric voice among mid-century poets, now less oriented toward empty aestheticism and more focused on the properly human dimensions, especially love.

By 1967 he began to receive major American poetry prizes such as the National Book Award for his Nights and Days, the Bollingen immediately after the release of Braving the Elements (1972), and a Pulitzer for Divine Comedies (1976). Parts of these Divine Comedies--he claimed--emerged from séance sessions at the Ouija board with David Jackson, and full fragments were inspired by messages coming from the dead, in some cases members of their own families.

While the idea invited scepticism the poems themselves proved to be outstanding and three experiments of this kind were published in the 1982 compilation The Changing Light at Sandover. He died in 1995 in Arizona after a heart attack.

 

Autor: Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)