James Merrill’s Collected Poems should be read at the rate the poems were published: a book every four years or so for forty-five years.[1] His language is so rich and elaborate that most of his works require a second reading at once, rewarding the effort more often than not. The poems cannot be consumed in bulk—they need time for reflection, delectation, and, at first, forbearance. Discovering Merrill in this eight-hundred-page collection (which excludes his epic The Changing Light at Sandover), a newcomer might put down the heavy book because of its failures; failure blights the early works and the triumphs are slow to come. Yet we cannot wholly appreciate the splendor of Merrill’s finest poetry without knowing its origins: it took this poet more than half his career to climb down the ladder of his rhetoric and lie down in what Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the...


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