James Merrill’s Early Years
To commemorate the March 3, 1926 birthday of MLC author James Merrill, we present “Baby’s Own Book”: a regal silk-draped testament to the legacy he inherited.
The son of wealthy Charles E. Merrill–founding partner of Merrill Lynch Investment Firm–James Merrill spent his childhood surrounded in various luxuries. For much of his life, Merrill perceived these luxuries and the name attached to them as a burden of false expectation.
Thus, it seems apt that the opening page of Merrill’s baby book features a poem dedicated to the connected names of James Ingram Merrill–“J.I.M”–and his mother, Helen Ingram Merrill–“H.I.M”–the first lines devoted to a relationship that would remain strong throughout his life and play a part in his poetic legacy.
And with these names
I can write this rhime
of how J.I.M. and H.I.M.
Must stay like two pins
Merrill’s baby book also documents his early development through photographs…
…and a list of rather extravagant gifts:
Silk coat and cap…
Gold diaper pins…
From an early age, James Merrill felt alienated from the lives of his parents–particularly, his father–and identified deeply, even guiltily, with his mother’s sadness. In his well-known autobiographical poem “The Broken Home”, Merrill writes:
Her business (he had implied) was giving birth,
Tending the house, mending the socks.
Always that same old story—
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.
In addition to seeking his mother, young Merrill sought comfort in the company of the family’s loyal, elegant Irish Setters (as pictured above). He also describes these dogs in a number of significant lines from “The Broken Home”:
One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, head
Passionately lowered, led
The child I was to a shut door.
The Modern Literature Collection is also home to Merrill’s first poem, a piece written in Helen Ingram’s hand titled “Looking At Mummy”. This first work foreshadows lines that would appear much later in a similar scene from “The Broken Home”:
Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,
And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness—was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.
For a full recording of James Merrill reading “The Broken Home”, visit: http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/mlc50/james-merrill/audio.