James Merrill's Apocalypse

James Merrill's Apocalypse

James Merrill's Apocalypse

James Merrill's Apocalypse


“Fin de siècle,” murmured Lord Henry.

“Fin du globe,” answered his hostess.

“I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian.

“Life is a great disappointment.”

—Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray

While still an undergraduate, James Merrill concluded an essay on Impressionism in Marcel Proust by questioning his own premises: “This blending of painting and literature is not … dangerous to the integrity of the work, but it is to the integrity of the critic who attempts to describe it.” He feared that his conception of Impressionism might actually misrepresent Proust’s fiction. Throughout his life, Merrill suspected that mere ideas might spoil what he called the “innocence” of direct perception. His ideal was Henry James, “whose finespun mind ‘no idea violates’“(CLS 14). Merrill also distrusted his own taste in ideas. In Late Settings (1985), the poem “Ideas” characterizes those of his persona Charles as a motorcycle gang that arrives with “horns, goggles, farts of flame” and Charles himself as someone with a “soft spot for the second best” (32).

Since Merrill was so aware of flaws in his artistic premises and suspicious of his ideas, his critics are often doomed to repeat Merrill’s own self-criticisms. He anticipated the negative criticisms of The Changing Light at Sandover in lines, for example, where he deplores his use of a “great tradition that has come to grief/In volumes by Blavatsky and Gurdjieff” (CLS 136). Autobiographical approaches to his work are challenged by poems such as “The Broken Home,” which knowingly provides a primal scene of the poet as a child entering his mother’s bedroom with his “satyr-thighed” dog. Any critic who hopes to decode autobiographical secrets from Merrill’s work must remember that the poet himself has mastered the code. Various critics have . . .

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