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The Passage of Time, the Concept of Loss, and Self-Reflection in the Literary Works of James Merrill

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James Merrill boasts an immaculate portfolio of plays, essays, and his specialty, poems. Formulaic, strict works of his earlier career evolved into deep explorations of personal psyche carved from his subjective interaction with the world. In sampling Merrill’s poems, I have observed his particular enrapturement with particularities of living. Throughout his works, Merrill demonstrates an innate fascination with the passage of time, revisits the concept of loss, and frequently engages in self-reflection. An innocuous concept that Merrill often attempts to explore in his work is the passage of time. He interprets and utilizes passing time as a transitional device to reveal truth or act as a harbinger change. A staunchly arrogant mirror devolves into a crumbling, subservient mess who succumbs to jealousy in the Mirror.

Time serves as an element to carry the degradation of ego how it begins as a simple crack and develops into irreparable fissures who threaten the structural and moral integrity of the mirror. The gilded mirror, once confident in its abilities to reflect and satisfied with the attention it receives, becomes a broken shell of its former glory by lying in the shadow of the venerated window. The time skip, evident through “Years later now,” serves as a progressive element emphasizing the longevity of the crippling effects of envy. I witnessed a distortion of time in the Black Swan, where a moment in time is extended throughout the structure to create an immersive, controlling subset of reality intended to alter the senses. A child is observing a black swan as it crosses a lake, but as it does so Merrill takes the opportunity to define the wisdom and symbolism the mystical fowl possesses.

The water of the lake serves as a symbol for the flow of time and how the living traverse through it- represented through the swan wading through its gentle waves. What has occurred in just a moment seems to carry on for years, and has allowed for a character in the poem to undergo a spiritual change. Time is more of a loose construct explored in Manos Karastefanes. The entirety of the poem’s structure boasts chronological progression of time that evolves from childhood into later stages of life, a sensical method of organizing thought. While a basic structure, this provides a basis of understanding from which the resulting events will eventually unravel- for instance, it is explicitly mentioned how the narrator was taught “heaven and hell,” by a childhood friend’s mother, and later experienced contrasting events varying from horrific warfare to recovery. “Heaven and hell” is a comparison that late juxtaposes with the appearance of “War and Peace,” a novel whose title serves as an ironic but purposeful comparison to echo two polar opposites which rely on each other for existence.

Time is an element that allows events to be consequential; of cause and effect in this poem, and how it retains a tendency to repeat itself. Loss is a universal experience shared by all, yet maintains individuality through the many coping mechanisms that exist. Merrill revisits the myriad of objects, people, or concepts that are susceptible to loss, and their consequent effects upon the spirit. Mirror, as previously discussed, cycles around an egotistical mirror whose qualities mimic its physical purpose: to depict appearance. The once confident reflective surface experiences neglect and corrosive jealousy as a result of the window gaining the unconditional attention of the children.

Years later, the grandchildren, who have recently reached adulthood, exclaim, “How superficial appearances are!” which is a jarring, incisive statement to the mirror. By criticizing appearance, they have effectively diminished the mirror’s purpose and thus it experiences a loss of ego and form. The mirror cracks and crumbles from a once pristine image, “as if a fish had broken the perfect silver of my reflectiveness,” which are outward representations of its crumbling ego and depreciation. The Black Swan explores loss both through a child’s forfeiture of innocence and through the symbolism existing in the black swan itself. The seemingly dark supernatural beast summons a young boy, who has “white ideas of swans,” to the lakeside. “White ideas of swans” serves as an implication that the child only believed in the existence of a saintly world and was yet untainted. However, by the conclusion of the poem, the juvenile is reaching for the unattainable bird, crying out “I love the black swan,” which represents his fall from purity as he succumbs to the seductiveness of the mysterious feathered fiend. Merrill also explicitly states the waterfowl’s understanding of loss, citing how it has “learned to enter sorrow’s lost secret center.”

The black swan serves as a symbolic entity of universal knowledge- an omniscient form able to wind the strings of sorrow tightly inside itself and exist with the infinite freezing pain that lingers within them. Manos Karastefanes similarly revisits the concept of lost innocence through the death of the protagonist’s father. Twelve is not an optimal age to rise to manhood, but through inference, the character in this poem rose to responsibility as a necessity. The father in particular traditionally exists as the head of the household, and thus through his death, the boy was forced to abandon his childhood in exchange for strength. The juvenile inevitably goes on to be a young man who serves in the military. Experience with extensive amounts of violence cripple the human condition, evident through the outward physical injuries undergone by the boy-turned soldier. The last shreds of innocence have been ripped away through the atrocity of war.

Merrill advantageously utilizes his craft as an opportunity for self-reflection. While his earlier works consisted mostly of bland formulaic content, he delved into the most plentiful resource of insight he possesses- his mental catalogue life experiences. Merrill’s personal fascination with and experience living in Greece emerges in Mirror, through the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus. Similar to the attractive yet insolent young man, the mirror is punished for its hubris by meeting a crumbling demise at the hand of its own ego. The inclusion of this allusion serves to bolster Merrill’s belief in the truth within Greek myths, particularly with how they possess revelations of human nature. A more deeply personal reflection is witnessed through the window that embraces “a whole world without once caring to set it in order.” Transparent panes allow for literal insight on the rest of the world that preaches awareness and receptiveness, a perspective somewhat beyond the privileged Merrill’s grasp during his early years.

The Black Swan features an impersonal contemplation focusing on the impending events that would bombard a young Merrill until he had assumed a mature mentality. The swan can be interpreted as an assumption of all the author’s sorrows and grievances that would soon arrive to introduce a then-ignorant Merrill to a world of insight. A notable source of corruption and change for Merrill was his service in WWII, which interrupted his education. His exposure to the war is referenced in Manos Karastefanes, where he projects the effects of his draft unto the protagonist. The military is introduced in the line “none of my army buddies called me by name,” which also sheds light upon another meditation of Merrill. The protagonist asserts that, rather than their real name, they were called “Styles” or “Fashion Plate,” two names that I couldn’t help but notice sound effeminate. This, I believe, may be a reference to Merrill’s experience with the societal acceptance of his sexuality, as homosexuality wasn’t universally accepted during his lifetime.

Dissension leads to insults, which commonly arise in the form of distasteful pet names. Merrill tackles monumental elements of life seamlessly through the intricately woven stanzas of his poetry. Passage of time becomes a device to further meaning and loss evolves into an experience that manipulates and sparks growth through pain. Self-reflection runs rampant in the works, allowing for a personal interaction between the work and the audience. Mirror, The Black Swan, and Manos Karastefanes depend upon these methods to derive meaning. However, they are mere examples amongst his body of work that contain similar themes, a massive portfolio containing insights on life, human nature, and self.

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