James Merrill was born on March 3, 1926, to Charles Merrill and Helen Ingram. His father was a founder of the investment firm Merrill Lynch, so James was endowed at the age of five with a trust fund that would never necessitate his ever working a day in his life if he so chose. Aside from a year teaching at Bard College and a year at Amherst, he lived off his trust fund and the income from his writing. There were, of course, several invited lectureships at various universities once he established his poetic reputation. As a child, he enjoyed the attention of a Prussian nanny who taught him French and German. Not an ordinary nanny, she had a sister who was decorated for playing duets with the Belgian Queen Mother. Merrill himself developed a love for music early on, and it remained a passion for him throughout his life. But Merrill’s early years were not without pain since his parents divorced when he was nine. His mother was actually his father’s second wife. Merrill père then entered a third marriage in 1937 when Merrill fils was only eleven. The events influenced Merrill’s poetry deeply as his father began to slip from his life. The precious nanny then left the household.
From 1939 to 1943 Merrill attended Lawrenceville Prep School near Princeton where he cultivated some very close friends, one of whom introduced him to the writing of poetry. This friend turned out to be Merrill’s best friend in high school, Frederick Buechner. Together they managed the school newspaper. Buechner proved to be the earliest influence on Merrill’s becoming a poet. Slavishly imitating whatever Buechner wrote, Merrill turned out sonnets for the school newspaper, but Merrill admits in his memoir that much of what he admired openly as poetry he disdained in private. When Merrill went off to college at Amherst, Buechner went to Princeton where he digressed into prose and eventually made