Playing the Great Works

Frederick Buechner, a prep-school classmate, gifted Merrill his first Ouija board in 1952, one year after First Poems was published. Timothy Materer, author of James Merrill’s Apocalypse, suggests that “Merrill’s friend found a backdoor way to encourage the poet’s spiritual interests” (81), but, reflecting on Merrill’s earlier work, it becomes apparent that this motif had been steadily growing and manifesting itself even in First Poems. The Sandover Trilogy takes the unambiguous form of an Ouija board through all three of its books. As the three-part epic poem progresses, JM and DJ transcend, by way of guidance, through the “stages” of the afterlife of which Ephraim is stationed in the sixth of nine. With the transition from book to book, readers observe an intensification in the “power” of the supernatural beings that JM and DJ interact with, from Ephraim to Michael and Gabriel, the angels. These “stages” are not only a play on the word as it relates to drama, but also perform an allusive function as they relate to Dante’s Divine Comedy with its tiered afterworlds. Merrill makes this reference rather explicit by citing the Paradiso in an epigraph before section “A.” The Book of Ephraim, the first installment of The Changing Light at Sandover, opens with section “A,” which serves as an author’s preface before section “B,” which provides the setting of the backdrop and stage for Ephraim, who appears in section “C.” Since The Book of Ephraim originated in Divine Comedies, the foundation in Dante’s three-part epic of not-quite-the-same title is not only obvious, but also necessary for reading Merrill’s epic, Ephraim himself serving as a type of Virgil-like guide who, among other qualities, is somewhat more witty, gossipy, and light-hearted when conversing with JM and JD.

For my study of The Book of Ephraim, I was in pursuit of classical music to concentrate. Now customarily, I settle for George Frideric Handel’s opera, Serse, an opera which blends comedy and tragedy about Persian King Serse, who falls in love with Romilda. On this particular occasion, Handel’s opera was beginning to generate a depressive response from me, and this prompted me to listen to Vivaldi’s string concertos. Often times the concertos elicit a strong emotional response from me, but the immediate effect, in accompaniment with The Book of Ephraim, was highly positive. The process of selecting classical music to listen to brings Ephraim, in section “G,” to mind. Hans Lodeizen, who died of leukemia in 1950, and to whom “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace” is dedicated, enters the red room in section “G,” and “He teaches Ephraim modern European / History, philosophy, and music.” JM notes, in the next line, that “E is most curious about the latter.” Ephraim, according to Merrill, is fascinated by H’s explanation of modern European music, and this invites H to suggest that Ephraim, or music itself for that matter, “Has reached the stage of… TRANSFERRED EXPERIENCE.” I mused quite some time on this line of section “G” and arrived at the conclusion that this inference is in direct response to the effect of music on both occupants of the living world and the spirit world. Ephraim is intrigued by modern music, and being “Born AD 8,” noted in section “C,” his understanding of music is “simpleminded.” Music imposes a “transferred experience” upon the listener, which is noted by Arthur Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of music is founded in the supposition that “music is the embodiment of the will.” “The Will” is also, perhaps not so coincidently, the title of a poem in Divine Comedies that Merrill references with a “conferatur” (Cf.) in section “A.” Materer notes that “The Will” is “a sequence of thirteen sonnets [which] recounts the breakthrough of the spirit world into Merrill’s poetic consciousness” (74). Materer also suggests that “The ‘will’ referred to is a document but also the other world as will and idea, which drives Merrill to take on the deferring task of prophecy” (74-75). One must ask, in light of these connections, if Merrill aligns music with prophecy, from his awakening to spiritual poetic inspiration in “The Will,” to H’s recognition of Ephraim’s “stage” in “transferred experience” through music.

Shortly thereafter, Merrill writes, “we must play him great / Works—Das Lied von der Erde and Apollon Musagète—,” for the purpose of exposing Ephraim to “great” modern European classical music. Either of these pieces, I thought, might provide insight into Merrill; that is, you can tell a lot about a man by what classical music he prefers. Das Lied von der Erde, literally translated to “The Song of the Earth,” is a two-voice orchestral composition by Gustav Mahler, the Bohemian-born, German speaking Jew. Ephraim himself is noted as being a “Greek Jew” in section “C.” The two-voice nature of the composition, which is technically a symphony, struck me as interesting in light of the fact that there are two sets of voices in The Book of Ephraim, the living world and the spirit world. Even more interesting is the fact that, as Mahler composed this symphony, one singer is a tenor and one an alto, one lower and one higher. The real question becomes: is the living world the higher or the lower voice of the two? Seeing as JM and DJ “transcend” as the epic continues, it doesn’t seem entirely unrealistic to surmise that the living world is the lower of the two voices, constantly aspiring or listlessly wandering to a “higher” realm, that of the spirit world which Ephraim occupies.  On the other hand, though… Merrill establishes this binary with hopes that the interpretation can go either way, where the living world is, in fact, the higher of the two, the alto to the spirit world’s tenor.

The second of the two “great works” is Apollon Musagète, or “Apollo, Leader of the Muses,” a ballet by Igor Stravinsky from the late twenties. The word “muses,” for me, inspires thoughts of “A Tenancy,” from Water Street, or the “three friends” Merrill lets into the new house, each bearing a gift. “Muse” also brings to mind Maria Demertzí Mitsotáki, Merrill’s Greek muse and a surrogate mother figure, who reappears in section “D” on a list of “Dramatis Personae.” The striking use of the name Apollo, the Greek god of music, light, prophecy, poetry, and the sun, seems all too connected to what Merrill is attempting in Sandover, prophecy, i.e. “The Will,” light, and its “changing” effects that begin in his Water Street poems, light as healing, etc., and poetry, of course. Apollo is sometimes noted as being a god of healing as well, reminding us of “An Urban Convalescence,” “Out for a walk, after a week in bed…” Perhaps this also refers readers back to “Verses for Urania,” Urania being one of the nine muses.

I’m left wondering how meaningful these two selections for “great works” truly are, and, knowing Merrill, they require a close examination. You have to wonder if Ephraim’s understanding of modern European music inspires him to “just listen harder” like Merrill’s “The Victor Dog,” which he dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop. Ephraim’s “simpleminded” understanding of music could be likened to the Victor Dog, who sits before the gramophone with head cocked to the side in utter fascination, but with an absentminded understanding of what the music is to an uneducated sensory experience, just the type that someone/something like Ephraim might lack. Among other things, Merrill appears to be establishing a pattern with the comprehension of music in relation to “non-humans.” Both “non-humans,” the Victor Dog and Ephraim, appear to be interested in understanding the music, but they initially lack the ability to comprehend it in the same fashion as Merrill, an opera enthusiast, according to The Fire Screen’s “The Opera Company” and other music-themed poems.

Later, in the same stanza of section “G,” Ephraim tells JM and DJ “HL REMEMBERS YOU / STILL HEARS THRU U JM A VERNAL MUSIC / THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” Ephraim refers to Lodeizen, and I’m left guessing about the meaning behind “vernal music.” Does this mean “spring-like” music? What does Ephraim mean by the “spring-like” music that HL remembers JM through? I’m tempted to examine the semantics of Ephraim’s quote in section “G.” He says, through the Ouija board, “THIS WILL BE YR LAST LIFE THANKS TO HIM…” I’m focusing on “THIS WILL,” and how it might suggest something about Merrill’s interest in prophecy, and the interwoven implication that the human will is given form through music. Is music then a type of prophecy in Merrill’s terms? And what does Ephraim’s lack of knowledge about modern European music suggest about the spirit world? It would seem to argue that the spirit world is disconnected from the living world, where the spirits would be able to “observe” the activities of the living, such as their music. I’m left wondering how connected or disconnected the living and spirit worlds are from one another. If a mirror is how Ephraim sees JM and DJ, also through reflected water when Ephraim sees them swimming naked in section “B” (perhaps, since Ephraim embodies the love between JM and DJ, naturally, he would be able to see them engaging in an intimate activity), what ability do spirits have to view the world of the living? And does this just mean they can see and not hear, smell, touch, or taste?

The alignment of music with foresight, prophecy through music, also appears in section “F.” Merrill describes Miranda (who, in the context of islands reminds me of Shakespeare’s The Tempest…) as having “…sudden / Spells of pure unheeding, like a Haydn / Finale marked giocoso but shot through / With silences—regret? foreknowledge?” In music, “giocoso” refers to a joyful or pleasantly merry piece. Merrill writes “giocoso,” and then follows it with “…but shot through.” Haydn finales are characteristically fast in pace and cut in time. By “shot through,” Merrill points out the speed of a Haydn finale in relation to the joyous and cheerful sound. This line could also be indicative of deception; as in, a Haydn finale is “marked giocoso,” but it’s “shot through / With silences,” i.e. it’s not cheerful and joyous, but filled with silences, suggesting sadness. In that regard, “giocoso” is deceptive because the finale is not “giocoso.” Merrill then, I believe, asks if these silences are “regret” or “foreknowledge,” further aligning music with prophecy and the human will.

Sections “A” through “H” develop several motifs in addition to the overwhelming importance of music for understanding the connection between the worlds of the living and the spirits. A repeated idea is that of education, where Ephraim serves as a type of teacher for JM and DJ while they’re exploring and interacting with the spirit world through the Ouija board. After all, their experiences with the board are experimental, and according to Ephraim, the world of the living knows little of the spirit world. JM and DJ are students of Ephraim, who, again, represents their love. The spirit that embodies the love shared between Merrill and Jackson also acts as a teacher to them. I would argue that, in some strange way, Merrill intended for love to be an educational means in relation to the spirit world. This may hold implications as we continue through The Book of Ephraim, but for now it’s merely a theory. The next experience, continuing with section “I,” will be their “brush with Divine Law.”

Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Cornell University, 2000.

Yenser, Stephen. Notes to “The Book of Ephraim”: Commentary on the Poem. Poetry Daily, 2018.

One thought on “Playing the Great Works

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s