By Emily Clark
As one of the leading American poets of the 20th century and Connecticut’s first poet laureate, James Merrill won multiple national awards and penned poetry and prose that has been described as elegant, imaginative, and witty. Though worldly and well-traveled, much of his work included references to Connecticut’s seaside village of Stonington, where Merrill lived for four decades.
An Early Life of Privilege
Born in New York City in March 1926, James Ingram Merrill was raised in a family of extreme wealth. (His father was a co-founder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch.) Growing up, he lived in Greenwich Village, New York, New Canaan, Connecticut, and Southampton, Long Island. His financial position allowed him the freedom to write without the worry of supporting himself. He was already writing stories by age eight and enjoying opera by eleven. While a teenager at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Merrill completed a book of poetry which his father had published with the title Jim’s Book—the beginning of a literary career that spanned decades and garnered him dozens of awards.
While at Amherst College, Merrill read and studied the work of French novelist Marcel Proust, whose themes inspired the young writer and became a hallmark of his later work. Though his education was interrupted by a year of infantry service overseas in the US army during World War II, Merrill graduated summa cum laude from Amherst in 1947. Shortly before graduating, he published a second collection of poems entitled, The Black Swan. After teaching for a year at Bard College, he spent time traveling through Europe on a journey of self-discovery.
National Critical Acclaim
In the 1950s, Merrill found both a sense of stability as well as a chance to stretch his literary skill. He settled in Stonington with David Jackson, a writer who became his longtime partner, and published First Poems in 1951. Its mixed reviews prompted Merrill to branch out and write his first play, The Immortal Husband, which was produced off Broadway in 1955, and his first novel, Seraglio, a semi-autobiographical piece published two years later. His first love was always poetry, however, and he returned to it with The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace in 1959. Though he was raised with money and remained wealthy throughout his life, Merrill appreciated the struggles that artists faced and created the Ingram Merrill Foundation to support writers and artists with funds he inherited after his father died.
In the years that followed, Merrill’s fame as a poet continued to grow, and many critics called his 1963 publication, Water Street, a breakthrough. Subsequently in the New York Times Book Review, X. J. Kennedy called Merrill “one of the American poets most worth reading.” Merrill’s second novel, The (Diblos) Notebook, was a National Book Award finalist for fiction in 1965 and Nights and Days won the National Book Award in Poetry the following year. In another Times review, critic Helen Vendler said Merrill “has become one of our indispensable poets.”
Back in the 1950s, Merrill and Jackson became fascinated by Ouija boards and were said to have contacted a spirit during a séance in their Stonington home. Almost 20 years later, this encounter with a spirit called “Ephraim” inspired Merrill to write the trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover. The 560-page epic contains the extensive poems “Divine Comedies,” “Mirabell: Books of Number,” and “Scripts for the Pageant” which detail the writers’ experiences with the Ouija board. “Divine Comedies” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and “Mirabell” took another National Book Award two years later. Additionally, Merrill was the recipient of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, among others.
Connecticut’s Poet Laureate
The acclaim that Merrill received from his exquisite, innovative writing led him to become Connecticut’s first poet laureate in 1986. So many of his works at that time included allusions to his home in Stonington as well as those in Key West, Florida and Athens, Greece. Upon receiving this distinction, the poet called it “an honor.” “In a way,” he said, “I feel I will stand for other writers in the state.”
Merrill wrote and published consistently for the next ten years, serving as a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and an adviser to the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. Though he had lived and traveled around the globe, he cherished his time in Stonington where, he said, “you are rinsed by the breezes off the water . . . I’m happiest where I work well and I work well in Stonington. I think of Connecticut as home.”
While vacationing in Tucson, Arizona in February 1995, James Merrill died of a heart attack related to AIDS. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Stonington. Several volumes of his work were published posthumously and the James Merrill House in Stonington is now a National Historic Landmark and hosts a Writer-in-Residence program. In addition, since its founding in 1956, the Ingram Merrill Foundation has awarded grants and financial support to hundreds of writers and artists.
Emily Clark is a freelance writer and an English and Journalism teacher at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge.