James Merrill House exterior

James Merrill House, Stonington, Connecticut. Photo by Logatorial, 2012. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

James Merill
Born 3, 1926(1926-Template:MONTHNUMBER-03)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died 6, 1995(1995-Template:MONTHNUMBER-06)
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.
Occupation poet
Nationality United States American
Alma mater Amherst College
Genres American poetry
Notable work(s) The Changing Light at Sandover, Divine Comedies, Nights and Days
Notable award(s) Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Award, Bollingen Prize
Partner(s) David Noyes Jackson
Relative(s) Charles E. Merrill (father)

James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926 - February 6, 1995) was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet. Although most of his published work was poetry, he also wrote essays, fiction, and plays.



Merrill's poetry falls into 2 distinct bodies of work: the polished and formalist (if deeply emotional) lyric poetry of his early career, and the epic narrative of occult communication with spirits and angels, titled The Changing Light at Sandover, which dominated his later career.

Youth and educationEdit

James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City to Hellen (Ingram) and Charles E. Merrill, a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm.[1] He had 2 older half siblings (a brother and a sister) from his father's previous marriage.

As a boy, Merrill enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in economic and educational terms. Merrill's childhood governess taught him French and German, an experience Merrill wrote about in his 1974 poem "Lost in Translation." His parents separated when he was 11, then divorced when he was 13 years old.

As a teenager, Merrill attended the Lawrenceville School, where he befriended future novelist Frederick Buechner.[2] When Merrill was 16 years old, his father collected his short stories and poems and published them as a surprise under the name Jim's Book. Initially pleased, Merrill would later regard the precocious book as an embarrassment.

Merrill was drafted in 1944 into the U.S. Army and served for 8 months. His studies interrupted by war and military service, Merrill returned to Amherst College in 1945 and graduated in 1947.


The Black Swan, a collection of Merrill's poems that his Amherst professor (and lover) Kimon Friar published privately in Athens, Greece in 1946, was printed in just 100 copies when Merrill was 20 years old. Merrill's 1st mature work, The Black Swan is Merrill's scarcest title and considered one of the 20th century's most collectible literary rarities.

Merrill's earliest commercially published volume was First Poems, issued in 990 numbered copies by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951.

Merrill's partner of more than 4 decades was David Noyes Jackson, also a writer. Merrill and Jackson met in New York City after a performance of Merrill's "The Bait" in 1953. Together, they moved to Stonington, Connecticut, in 1955. For 2 decades, the couple spent part of each year in Athens, Greece. In 1979 Merrill and Jackson began spending part of each year at Jackson's home in Key West, Florida.

In his 1993 memoir A Different Person, Merrill revealed that he suffered writer's block early in his career and sought psychiatric help to overcome its effects. Merrill painted a candid portrait of gay life in the early 1950s, describing relationships with several men including writer Claude Fredericks, art dealer Robert Isaacson, David Jackson, and his last partner, actor Peter Hooten.

Despite great personal wealth derived from unbreakable trusts made early in his childhood, Merrill lived modestly. A philanthropist, he created the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the name of which united his divorced parents. The private foundation operated during the poet's lifetime and subsidized literature, the arts, and public television. Merrill was close to poet Elizabeth Bishop and filmmaker Maya Deren, giving critical financial assistance to both (while providing money to many other writers, often anonymously). Merrill served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death.

While vacationing in Arizona, he died on February 6, 1995 from a heart attack related to AIDS.


A writer of elegance and wit, highly adept at wordplay and puns, Merrill was a master of traditional poetic meter and form who also wrote a good deal of free and blank verse. Greek themes, locales, and characters occupy a prominent position in his writing.

Though not generally considered a Confessionalist poet, he made frequent use of personal relationships to fuel his "chronicles of love & loss" (as the speaker in Mirabell called his work). The divorce of Merrill's parents — the sense of disruption, followed by a sense of seeing the world "doubled" or in two ways at once — figures prominently in the poet's verse. Merrill did not hesitate to alter small autobiographical details to improve a poem's logic, or to serve an environmental, aesthetic, or spiritual theme.

As Merrill matured, the polished and taut brilliance of his early work yielded to a more informal, relaxed voice. Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. The result, a 560-page apocalyptic epic published as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), documents 2 decades of messages dictated from otherworldly spirits during Ouija séances hosted by Merrill and Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the longest epics in any language, and features the voices of recently deceased poet W. H. Auden, Merrill's late friends Maya Deren and Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki, as well has heavenly beings including the Archangel Michael. Channeling voices through a Ouija board "made me think twice about the imagination," Merrill later explained. "If the spirits aren't external, how astonishing the mediums become! Victor Hugo said of his voices that they were like his own mental powers multiplied by five."

Following the publication of The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill returned to writing shorter poetry which could be both whimsical and nostalgic: "Self-Portrait in TYVEK Windbreaker" (for example) is a conceit inspired by a windbreaker jacket Merrill purchased from "one of those vaguely imbecile / Emporia catering to the collective unconscious / Of our time and place." The Tyvek windbreaker — "DuPont contributed the seeming-frail, / Unrippable stuff first used for Priority Mail" — is "white with a world map." "A zipper's hiss, and the Atlantic Ocean closes / Over my blood-red T-shirt from the Gap."[1]


Beginning with the prestigious Glascock Prize, awarded for "The Black Swan" when he was an undergraduate, Merrill would go on to receive every major poetry award in the United States, including the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Divine Comedies. Merrill was honored in mid-career with the Bollingen Prize in 1973. He would receive the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for The Changing Light at Sandover. In 1990, he received the inaugural Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room. He was awarded the National Book Award for Nights and Days in 1967 and again in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of number. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978.[3]



  • Jim's Book: A collection of poems and short stories. privately printed, 1942.
  • The Black Swan. Athens, Greece: Icarus, 1946.
  • First Poems. New York: Knopf, 1951.
  • Short Stories. Pawlet, VT: Banyan Press, 1954.
  • The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace. New York: Knopf, 1959
    • revised edition. New York: Atheneum, 1970.
  • Selected Poems. LOndon: Chatto & Windus, 1961.
  • Water Street. New York: Atheneum, 1962.
  • Nights and Days. New York: Atheneum, 1966.
  • The Fire Screen. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
  • Braving the Elements. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
  • Two Poems: From the Cupola and the Summer People. London: Chatto & Windus, 1972.
  • Yannina. New York: Phoenix Book Shop, 1973.
  • The Yellow Pages: 59 poems. Cambridge, MA: Temple Bar Bookshop, 1974.
  • Divine Comedies (includes "The Book of Ephraim"). New York: Atheneum, 1976.
  • Metamorphosis of 741. Chicago: Banyan Press, 1977.
  • Mirabell: Books of Number (published as "Mirabell's Books of Number" in The Changing Light at Sandover). New York: Atheneum, 1978.
  • Scripts for the Pageant. New York: Atheneum, 1980.
  • The Changing Light at Sandover (contains "The Book of Ephraim," "Mirabell's Books of Number," "Scripts for the Pageant," and a new coda). New York: Atheneum, 1982.
  • From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976. New York: Atheneum, 1982.
  • From the Cutting-Room Floor. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  • Late Settings. New York: Atheneum, 1985.
  • The Inner Room. New York: Knopf, 1988.
  • Selected Poems, 1946-1985. New York: Knopf, 1992.
  • A Scattering of Salts. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  • Self-Portrait in Tyvek Windbreaker, and other poems. Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1995.
  • Collected Poems (edited by J.D. McClatchy & Stephen Yenser). New York: Knopf, 2001.
  • Selected Poems (edited by J.D. McClatchy & Stephen Yenser). New York: Knopf, 2008.


  • The Immortal Husband (produced in New York, NY, 1955); published in Playbook. New York: New Directions, 1956.
  • The Bait (produced in New York, NY, 1953); published in Artists Theatre. New York: Grove, 1960.
  • The Image Maker: A Play in One Act. New York: Sea Cliff Press, 1986.


  • The Seraglio. New York: Knopf, 1957; New York: Atheneum, 1987.
  • The (Diblos) Notebook. New York: Atheneum, 1965; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.


  • Recitative: Prose. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1986.
  • A Different Person: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Collected Prose (edited by J.D. McClatchy & Stephen Yenser). New York: Knopf, 2004.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[4]

See alsoEdit

James Merrill - "Days of 1964"-0

James Merrill - "Days of 1964"-0

James Merrill at the Poetry Center in San Francisco, 1980

James Merrill at the Poetry Center in San Francisco, 1980

James Merrill - "The Broken Home"

James Merrill - "The Broken Home"


  • James Merrill: Essays in Criticism (1983)
  • Judith Moffett, James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry (1984)
  • Reflected Houses (1986) audio recording
  • Stephen Yenser, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (1987)
  • Robert Polito, "A Reader's Guide to The Changing Light at Sandover" (1994)
  • The Voice of the Poet: James Merrill (1999) Audio Book
  • Alison Lurie, Familiar Spirits: A memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (2000)
  • Piotr Gwiazda, James Merrill and W.H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence (American Literature Readings in the Twenty-First Century) (2007)
  • Peter Nickowitz, Rhetoric and Sexuality: The Poetry of Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill (2006)
  • Reena Sastri, James Merrill: Knowing Innocence (2007)



  1. "James Merrill's Life," Modern American Poetry, University of Illinois, Web, Jan. 13, 2012.
  2. Gussow, Mel. "James Merrill Is Dead at 68; Elegant Poet of Love and Loss", The New York Times, February 7, 1995. Accessed October 31, 2007. "He went to Lawrenceville School, where one of his close friends and classmates was the novelist Frederick Buechner."
  3. "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter M". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  4. James Merrill 1926-1995, Poetry Foundation, Web, Nov. 10, 2012.

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