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Book Name: The Changing Light at Sandover

Author: James Merrill

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Overall Rating: (4.2/5) View all reviews (total 5 reviews)

“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 asThe Waste Landwas to the one before.”—The New Leader“In turns comic, elegiac, and darkly prophetic,Sandoveris 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.” —NewsweekFrom the Trade Paperback edition.



by Benjamin

Admittedly, Merrill is not for everyone. His poetry is dense, cyclical, scientific, and at times deliberately aloof. Yet, this post-modern epic poem deserves to be placed alongside T.S. Elliot's "The Wasteland" as one of the great long poems of the 20th century.(The reviewer was compensated for posting this review. However, the opinion stated in the review is that of the reviewer and the reviewer alone. Further, the reviewer independently selected this product to review and has no affiliation with the product maker/distributor, Amazon or the review requester.)

Merrill's Masterpiece

by Bruce Kendall "BEK"

The Changing Light at Sandover is Merrill's magnum opus. It is also the greatest example of epic poetry in modern literature. Divided into four sections (four being a mystical number [seasons, elements, etc] and possibly alluding also to Eliot's "Four Quartets"), Sandover, is, as far as I am aware, the longest single poem in the modern cannon. Yet length alone is not what qualifies this as an epic poem. Like all true epic poetry, it borrows heavily from its classical predecessors, so Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and even Tasso are alluded to throughout the poem.The method behind the poem is fairly well known, and is in fact included in the poem's narrative. Merrill and his life-partner, David Jackson, would ritualistically cleanse themselves for a stipulated period, then consult the spirit-world by means of an Ouija Board. Merrill served as a kind of amanuensis, taking dictation from spirits from another dimension and translating the messages into poetry.Merrill has been branded as an elitist by some, and there is no getting around the fact that he did consider himself and his partner as members of an order higher than that of most of mankind. He believed in a quasi-Gnostic hierarchy, wherein human beings are ranked according to their spiritual development. Unfortunately, the belief system he invokes leans more closely to Third Reich mysticism than to Buddhism or Hinduism. A great many people, according to Merrill's tenets, don't even have souls. They exist only on an animal level. One can see where this sort of thinking can, and has led.I don`t want to infer, however, that Merrill, or this work, are in any manner political or polemical. This is a true work of art, full of imagination and of ideas. The sheer scope of creativity on display in "Sandhurst" is unsurpassed in the past 100 years of poetry, with the possible exception of "The Waste Land." It should be read and studied (and hopefully, cherished) by all lovers of literature. Whether or not Merrill existed on a higher plane than most of us is certainly debatable, even questionable. Whether or not his excursions into other spiritual realms were "real" or were delusional is also debatable. What is not debatable, is the fact that he produced a remarkable and very important poem in the process.

Battlefield Sandover

by Kevin Killian

I remember getting a copy of "Divine Comedies" for my birthday as a youngster and being intrigued by the story of "Ephraim," and hearing about two people, JM and DJ, communicating with the dead through a Ouija board, The book has a list of Dramatis Personae that captivated me, for among them were some of my favorite artists like Maya Deren and W H Auden, together with some family relations and celebrities whom I did not know, enough to fill a whole novel. I suppose that Merrill knew he was onto a good thing, for he came back a few years later with a whole magnum opus about these characters and more... Then years later with a book of "Scripts for the Pageant," really milking out the story for all it was worth, in beautiful cascades of verse both lyrical and coruscating--and much of it actual dictations from a heavenly place.I wasn't sure how much to believe of the back story, or how deeply to believe in the revelations of the divine that DJ and JM were getting through the Ouija. But at one point I was convinced that Merrill was the greatest poet writing in English. Today I think that he was the wealthiest poet writing in English, and all that implies. I know I wanted, like him, to have a fabulous life and know all these famous writers and legends, to move between Venice and Greece and Connecticut (later to Florida) with a different circle of adepts in each location--and to speak to the dead was the icing on the cake, a byproduct surely of charm and, you know, just being open to it. How many Ouija boards did my pals and I wear out, hardly ever getting anything except when I, well, cheated. Although one time this guy called "Ray" came on and claimed that Bobby Kennedy was going to be assassinated. But that had happened ten years before Ray's appearance, so we speculated that poor "Ray" was locked in a black hole or time warp like the characters in Rocky Horror, and that he, whom we suspected was the French writer "Ray" Radiguet, the beloved of Cocteau, could be set free if we all wrote poems about him.I can't really separate the way I used to feel about Merrill's mastery of form and image, with the picture of his money. Master anthologist J.D. McClatchy (and Stephen Yenser, a poet whom I have praised in the past) have produced a new edition of Sandower, free of the errors that had plagued previous editions. As the book proceeds we get more and more of those small caps that signify dead people speaking--then it gets more tedious, though many will disagree, especially those who think the voices are bringing wisdom beyond the realm of the human. I often wonder what Scientologists make of James Merrill. Perhaps instead of making that ill-advised movie of L Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth some years ago, John Travolta might have instead done a film version of The Changing Light at Sandover--would have been perfect when Merchant and Ivory were both still alive. I would have Travolta as JM, Tom Cruise as DJ, Priscilla Presley as Maya Deren, Angela Bassett as Erzulie, Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pythagoras, that guy from The History Boys as Auden, Penelope Cruz as Maria Mitsotaki, and Robert Morse (the actor) as Robert Morse whoever he was in real life. I think a young Arnold Scharzenegger might have done a fine, delicate job as Hans. Tom Wilkinson as Robert Lowell? Patti LuPone as Maria Callas? No--Katey Sagal.

Poetically Perfect/ Metaphysically Mediocre

by OAKSHAMAN "oakshaman"

First of all I felt somewhat intimidated when it came to starting this epic work. I was afraid that my own background might prove inadequate for a product of such ethereal literary heights. It came as a relief when I found that I was well enough read to appreciate the majority of the literary and cultural references (at least I believe that I did.) Part of this was no doubt due to what I brought to the work, but equally part was due to the poet's uncanny ability to draw you in and connect you with the most intimate and obscure reference. I actually felt like I belonged to the circle- that I might be able to hold my own in such august company. This company included not only the poet, his partner, and their friends, but also the supposed spirits of Plato, Pythagoras, Robert Morse, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Maya Deven, W.H. Auden, and even more.So much for the exquisite and impressive poetic and literary aspect of the epic- the metaphysical basis was a another matter. Here I felt more than adequate. It is reported that Merrill and his partner styled themselves as metaphysical adepts. Indeed they drew the old criticism of being "spiritual elitists." Frankly, I do not sense that they were such. Such individuals exist, but they do not naively and uncritically seek out contact with the lower astral plane via ouija board. They do not take at face value the identities and messages of the beings so contacted. True, this may provide "interesting" material for the poet to run with, but it is of dubious value otherwise. In fact, some of the specific information (such as no souls escaping Hiroshima) just sounds plain wrong. As for three billion dead in the immediate future, or Mohammed being the servant of the Adversary and destined to bring about the last holy war, well, I'll let you judge for yourself. There is also something about treating the subject of spiritual patrons and the pattern of the wallpaper with seemingly equal weight in the poem that is somewhat disconcerting...Just the fact that multiple "characters" reveal in the course of the poem that they are not who they originally said that they were (sometimes for decades) should tell you how much credence you should place in anything that they have revealed.What irritates me is that some would equate this work with William Blake's. Yes, it is a remarkable work of art, an exquisite poem, but it is not Revelation. You have about an equal amount of gems and dross in a most impressive setting. However, it is up to you to judge which is which. You see, a true poet-prophet (such as Blake or Dante or Milton) rely on their own direct, intuitive connection with the Divine, and not upon a secondary entity to contact the Essence that will impart true immortality to their work. But then again, as far as I know, the poet himself never claimed that this was anything more than a most skilled riff of poetic art. It is indeed that.The stage adaptation is included in the back of this volume. It is my humble recommendation that you read it first in order to make the main poem a little more accessible.One furthur note, the "God B" refered to so often here is obviously the Demiurge- Yaltabaoth."Now the archon (ruler) who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas ("fool"), and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, `I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come."---Apocryphon of John, circa 200AD

A Peculiarly Private World

by Roger Brunyate "reader/writer/musician"

[NOTE: This long poem is by James Merrill. JD McClatchy merely collaborated on the introduction.]I was recently corresponding with someone about modern book-length poems in English, to rival say Byron'sDON JUANor Browning'sTHE RING AND THE BOOK. I suggestedTHE GOLDEN GATEby Vikram Seth, which is essentially a straightforward but witty novel written in the quasi-sonnet form that Pushkin used forEUGENE ONEGIN. He countered withOMEROSby Derek Walcott and this huge magnum opus (560 pages) by James Merrill, neither of which is straightforward or could remotely be called a novel. I reviewed the Walcott recently, and liked it immensely, but this one by Merrill had me first intrigued, then baffled, then alienated.My first paragraph above may give some clue why, as it is an orgy of name-dropping, mentioning five works of high literature in only three sentences. Merrill, though, is the name-dropper par excellence, with a multitude of figures, real and mythological, dead and alive, dropping in and out to deliver obiter dicta or engage in casual chat. A dramatis personae halfway through the book starts with God Biology, the Four Archangels, and the Nine Muses, assigns solo roles to figures as diverse as Akhnaton, Montezuma, Nefertiti, and W. H. Auden, and moves on to a list of supporting characters: "The Architect of Ephesus, Marius Bewley, Maria Callas, Maya Deren, Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Lodeizen, Robert Lowell, Pythagoras, The Blessed Luca Spionari, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Richard Strauss, Alice B. Toklas, Richard Wagner, W. B. Yeats, and Ephraim."How come? The entire book is based on sessions conducted by Merrill and his longtime companion David Jackson using a Ouija board, the messages from which appear, misspellings, abbreviations, and all, in block capitals. In the first of the three parts, published separately in 1976 as THE BOOK OF EPHRAIM, their spirit guide Ephraim, whose memories go back at least to the court of the Emperor Tiberius, leads Merrill to write 26 long poems (in an impressive variety of styles) each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. In MIRABELL'S BOOKS OF NUMBER (1978) a different guide generates numerically-organized poems dealing with such subjects as the atom bomb and DNA, as well as the continued life, personal traumas, and European travels of Merrill and Jackson. The third volume, SCRIPTS FOR THE PAGEANT (1980), involves the intervention of the huge cast of characters only partially listed above.You might think that a poet who casts his net so widely might open exhilarating horizons to the reader, and there are many who praise the book on the back cover and elsewhere who feel just that; I won't argue with them. But for me it felt more like eavesdropping on a conversation between two old friends and lovers who secure their closeness within a private circle of shared experiences, mutual friends, and secret language. Both Merrill and Walcott stretch out to other centuries and continents in their writing, but there is a difference. With OMEROS, I felt exhilarated, expanded, embraced. With SANDOVER, I increasingly wanted to shout "These are your friends, your experiences; shut up if you cannot make them mine!" This was not helped by the campy tone used by the spirit messengers throughout, calling them "My dears" or "Mes enfants." And the constant use of block capitals for these other voices make the physical act of reading quite challenging, especially in the later sections where the Ouija board takes over for paragraphs at a time.I'll end with an illustration. Merrill can be disarmingly simple or brilliantly complex. He is the master of blank verse, couplets, sonnets, terza rima, and villanelle. I can't possibly illustrate everything, so let's settle for a compromise chosen almost at random, a single stanza in MIRABELL that combines both the spirit voice and the conversation of the two companions (David Jackson is about to have a long-postponed operation):THE POINT MY DEARS IS THE EMERGENCE OFA SCIENCE GOD. THIS IS AS WE ALL KNOWINEVITABLE IF BORING. WHERE U ASKDOES THE POET FIT? HOUSE ORGANIST? If so,I'd settle for more Bach and less Gounod.IT WILL BECOME A PLAY OF VOICES FORU MY BOY IN SOLITUDE TO SCOREDJ: In solitude? Why? Where will I --This operation -- does he mean I'll die?JM: Please. I stay on here -- remember? --When you go back to Athens in September.

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