Amherst Magazine

James Merrill: Knowing Innocence

By Reena Sastri ’94. New York and London: Routledge, 2007. 244 pp. $110 hardcover.

Review by William Pritchard '53

James Merrill ’47 died in 1995, and since then there have been sumptuous editions of his poems, prose, novels and plays. A biography by the critic Langdon Hammer is in process; meanwhile, critical studies of his work regularly appear. Of these, the most recent and most impressive is Reena Sastri’s Knowing Innocence, whose five chapters constitute a bold exploration of Merrill’s poetic art. Her introduction frames the book as a demonstration of “how innocence guides Merrill’s poetic development as an ideal both sought and resisted.” In this development, innocence is not a regressive illusion of some lost childhood goodness but rather an “active, knowing innocence” that is constructed through engagement with political and social-historical as well as personal contexts. Merrill’s light touch, which some readers have found too arty, too purely aesthetic, is—as Sastri shows in the body of her book—expressive of “intellectual curiosity, deep feeling and moral discrimination,” undertaken always with “unparalleled inventiveness, humor and grace.”

Her opening chapters consider various poems about childhood from Merrill’s earlier volumes, up through Divine Comedies (1976). The second part of that book contained “The Book of Ephraim,” which would be the opening section of three in the long poem eventually titled The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). Sastri takes up Sandover in the middle chapter by way of describing what she calls Merrill’s “scientific myth.” The poem is, for this reader as others I suspect, Merrill at his most daunting and also most private, with its many in-jokes and allusions. My guess is that, for all its scope and brilliance, Sandover will be less admired and returned to than the lyrics that precede and follow it. But Sastri’s dense and difficult commentary is needed and welcome.

It should be pointed out, and will immediately become apparent to any reader of Knowing Innocence, that Sastri’s is criticism that demands one’s total attention. Its scrupulous and exhaustive observations, always made with the poem’s language as guide and director, extend to acknowledging and sometimes arguing with other critics of Merrill’s verse, of whom Stephen Yenser and Helen Vendler are the most substantial and authoritative. Sastri is also committed to understanding and appreciating Merrill’s lyrics in relation to important poetic predecessors: older poets like Blake and Wordsworth, and the 20th-century ones Merrill grew up reading and admiring—Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Auden. There are useful distinctions made between Merrill’s presentation of himself as a child and that of his contemporary Robert Lowell’s in Life Studies. But a reader who wants to benefit from Sastri’s commentary should keep on hand at all times a volume of Merrill’s work, and should first read the poem in question, then Sastri’s pages or paragraphs about it, then the poem again. In other words, slow reading of both poet and critic is essential.

Sastri’s book comes to a strong conclusion in its final chapter on Merrill’s last book, A Scattering of Salts, published the year he died. The “knowing innocence” she sees as culminating in that volume is created “in part by means of his flexible tone.” I should put it even more unqualifiedly by claiming that Merrill’s flexible tone is the sine qua non, the sum and substance of all his effects. Such wonderful and difficult poems from A Scattering of Salts as “The Ring Cycle,” “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” and “164 East 72nd Street,” all of which she discusses along with others, constitute the apotheosis of a lifetime’s work. As Sastri puts it, “The voice that comes to life on the page belongs to a poet who has anticipated
his own death.” Having settled back into the New York City house he inherited from his grandmother, Merrill concludes “164 East 72nd Street” with the sense that adult life

Is letting up, leaving me ten years old,
Trustful, inventive, once more good as gold
—And counting on this to help, should a new spasm
Wake the gray sleeper, or to improve his chances
When ceilings flush with unheard ambulances.

This is indeed what a knowing innocence looks and sounds like.

Pritchard is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst.