Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Selected Poems

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Selected Poems

Article excerpt

SELECTED POEMS by James Merrill Knopf, 320 pages, $16

Like Yeats' "perfection of the life or of the work," Matthew Arnold's elevation of art to fill the void of what he saw as the receding tide of faith posed one of the defining questions for poets in the twentieth century. Eliot's answer- clarion-clear in the Four Quartets- was, in effect to obliterate what he saw as a false disjunction. This was an answer James Merrill never could come to. Instead, he perfected bis brilliant metaphors, punning wit virtuoso prosody, arch tone, and occasional preciosity in a poignant attempt to transcend the limits of the art he practiced so well. He should be read for the quality of what he accomplished in that heroic but doomed attempt.

When Merrill did essay a modern metaphysics of his own, the outsized Changing Light at Sandover, the result was a twentieth-century cosmology cobbled somewhere out of Dante, Wordsworthian visions of reincarnation, and the most exquisitely artful séance sessions ever to manifest via a Ouija board and a broken-teacup planchette. …

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