‘W. H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror and the Development of James Merrill's Humane Aesthetic’. Symbiosis 12.2

Author: Coffman, Christopher


Humanities-Ebooks ‘Reprint’, 2010. 17 pages, secure PDF. 251k. Permissions: printing allowed, copying disabled

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This essay was originally published in Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, Volume 12.2 (October 2008) 115-30



James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover, W H Auden, The Sea and the Mirror




What is it that Merrill found so attractive in The Sea and the Mirror, and what was it that Auden recognized as significant in Merrill’s poetry of the mid-1960s? Certainly there are several responses. Auden’s influence on Merrill has been duly noted by many critics, and Piotr Gwiazda and Lynn Keller have both published particularly insightful work exploring different aspects of that influence. Still, there has been no close examination of the importance to Merrill of that poem through which he came to know Auden’s work, The Sea and the Mirror. I argue that a reading of Merrill’s poetry through the light of Auden’s poem offers important clues regarding the shape of Merrill’s movement from his early and much criticized hyper-aestheticism to the more expansive view of his art’s possibilities evident in the powerful poetry for which he was awarded his first National Book Award. Merrill does not, of course, simply adopt Auden’s ideas and images, and his divergences from Auden—particularly the rejection of Auden’s resolving Wholly Other in favor of the persistent contingency that marks Merrill’s entire career—are also elucidated by a closer consideration of this stage of his poetry in relation to Auden’s work.

About the author

Christopher Coffman, Boston University

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‘W. H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror and the Development of James Merrill's Humane Aesthetic’. Symbiosis 12.2

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