The Changing Light at Sandover
Publication Date: February 14, 2006
James Merrill’s audacious and dazzling epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, remains as startling today as when it first emerged in separate volumes over a period of several years. Individual parts won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and the entire poem, when it was collected into one volume in 1982, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is now an American classic, here in a definitive new hardcover edition that includes Voices from Sandover, Merrill’s recasting of the poem for the stage. The book carries us to the scene of Merrill’s Ouija board sessions with his partner, David Jackson—the candlelit Stonington dining room with its flame-colored walls and the famous Willowware cup they used as a pointer in their occult travels. In a shimmering interplay of verse forms, Merrill set down their extended conversations with their familiar and guide, Ephraim (a first-century Greek Jew), W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Plato, a brilliant peacock named Mirabell, and other old friends who had passed to the other side. JM (whom the spirits call “scribe”) and DJ (“hand”) are also introduced to the lonely eminence God B (“God Biology”), his sister Mother Nature, and a host of angels and lesser residents of the empyrean who are variously involved in the ways of this world.
The laughter, the missteps, and the schoolroom frustrations of the earthly pair’s gradual enlightenment make this otherworldly journey, finally, and utterly human one. A unique exploration of the writer’s role in a postatomic, postreligious age, Sandover has been compared to the work of Yeats, Proust, Milton, and Blake. Merrill’s tale of the joys and tragedies of man’s powers, and his message about the importance of our endangered efforts to make a good life on earth, will stand as one of the most profound experiences available to readers of poetry.
James Merrill was born on March 3, 1926, in New York City and died on February 6, 1995. From the mid-1950s on, he lived in Stonington, Connecticut, and for extended periods he also had houses in Athens and Key West. From The Black Swan (1946) through A Scattering of Salts (1995), he wrote twelve books of poems, ten of them published in trade editions, as well as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). He also published two plays, The Immortal Husband (1956) and The Bait (1960); two novels, The Seraglio (1957, reissued 1987) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965, reissued 1994); a book of essays, interviews, and reviews, Recitative (1986); and a memoir, A Different Person (1993). Over the years, he was the winner of numerous awards for his poetry, including two National Book Awards, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser are James Merrill’s literary executors. J. D. McClatchy has published six volumes of poetry and three collections of essays. He teaches at Yale, where he also edits The Yale Review. Stephen Yenser has written three books of criticism (one about Merrill) and two volumes of poems. He is a professor of English and the director of Creative Writing at UCLA.
“An astonishing performance . . . As near to [a masterpiece] as anything that American poetry has produced in the last two or three decades.” —The New York Review of Books
“James Merrill has created a poem as central to our generation as The Waste Land was to the one before.” —The New Leader
“In turns comic, elegiac, and darkly prophetic, Sandover is as ambitious in scope as it is audacious in concept . . . combining an epic intent with dramatic and lyric meanings and means. The result may be the greatest long poem an American has yet produced.” —Newsweek