James Merrill

James Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926.

He was the son of Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch.

Born in New York, into a family whose wealth might seem nearly stupefying.

Merrill was and more extraordinarily was not the child of this wealth.

Merrill Papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections
Copyright: Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University

Being the son of Charles Merrill made predictable certain elements of early years.

Education at the Lawrenceville School, and then Amherst College. Summers on the beaches of Southampton.

Image: The Merrill’s Southampton Home, The Orchard

And, more generally, his idiosyncratic and adventurous predilections toward the aesthetic.

Difficult enough to navigate the flounderings of adolescence if one, more or less, is an average, imminently heterosexual person.

Far more ostensibly challenging to navigate such flounders if one is not. Being brilliant hardly making the navigation easier. All of which perhaps illuminates Merrill’s turn to a formalist poetic. The delight and reprieve of giving to life’s confusions not only a lapidary vocabulary, but a meter, and a rhyme.

This exquisite imbrication of vivacity and form—astonishment and sapience, restraint and delight—is one way to understand the inimitable achievement of Merrill’s poetry.

A National Book Award for Nights & Days (1966). The Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976). A second National Book Award for Mirabell (1978). The National Book Critics Circle Award for the extraordinary epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

One will find these framed prizes on the wall of Merrill’s kitchen in Stonington. Which is fitting, since Merrill lived in this Stonington home since 1955. Born under the sign of Pisces, and now with Stonington’s gorgeous water views, there is poetic justice in Merrill’s having lived on Water Street, for Water Street to be the title of one of Merrill’s early books.

Numbers of books (there are many more) and numbers of prestigious prizes (there are many more) seem one of the less interesting ways to mark a poet’s greatness.

At the same time it is inarguable that Merrill remains one of our most important poets. One of our wittiest, most generous, and searching.

Merrill and his lifelong partner, the painter David Jackson, spent many months of each year in Key West and Athens. While his travels abroad (some of which vividly conjured in Merrill’s memoir, A Different Person) inform his poems in myriad ways, Merrill’s Stonington residence is that which remains most inseparable from the Merrill myth.

By which I mean both the myth of Merrill’s life, and the mythology Merrill himself authored: the unmatchably strange and scintillating. Perhaps the most fruitful and famous adventure with an oui-ja board, and an adventure engaged in the round, coral-colored dining room of the Stonington apartment.

He is remembered not only as great ambassador and friend of poetry, but more simply, as a great friend.

Elizabeth Bishop, Maya Deren, Rachel Hadas, David Kalstone, Stephen Yenser, J.D. McClatchy—the Merrill circle is wide, and continues to ripple out. One feels Merrill’s gift of friendship (made all the more vibrant in the gleam of Merrill’s many other gifts) in his writing. Sometimes, if one is lucky, one feels it in Merrill’s Water Street home.

Selected Works of James Merrill


Books and Collections by James Merrill

Collected Poems
Collected Prose
Collected Novels and Plays
A Different Person, 
and more

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The Victor Dog

Braving the Elements, 1972

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

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Home Fires

A Scattering of Salts, 1995

I peered into the crater’s heaving red
And quailed. I called upon the Muse. I said,
“The day I cease to serve you, let me die!”
And woke alone to birdsong, in our bed.

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The Broken Home

Nights and Days, 1996

Crossing the street,
I saw the parents and the child
At their window, gleaming like fruit
With evening’s mild gold leaf.

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