The young James Merrill first saw Greece in 1950 as part of a two-and-a-half-year long European tour, a trip he would later detail in his memoir A Different Person. He traveled to Greece specifically to visit his friend, teacher and first lover, Kimon Friar, a Greek-American poet and translator. In 1957, he and his companion David Jackson took a trip around the world, with Greece on the itinerary. In 1964, they began to spend part of every year in Greece, in a house at the foot of Mount Lycabettus, in Athens, where they famously threw parties for the local literary set.
Merrill would go on to set his novel The Diblos Notebooks and many of his poems in Greece. One of the earliest of those poems, “After Greece,” was published in The New Yorker in 1960, and collected in the 1962 volume Water Street—in other words, in between the first trip Merrill and Jackson took to Greece together, and before they became part-time expatriates. So we can situate the poem “After Greece” in longing for a place Merrill had visited and would return to—over and over again—for two decades.
But what did Europe in general and Greece in particular mean to Merrill? As he tells us in A Different Person, he undertook his European grand tour at age 24 to put distance between himself and his family. In his words, “finally there was a world teeming with people who’d never heard of my father or the Firm.” He also needed to escape the influence of his mother who disapproved of his homosexuality, and worried out loud and often to her son over how society would treat him if his private life became public. Merrill also wanted to flee his clique of friends in New York City, a social scene that had begun to feel limiting. So Europe represented a chance to reinvent himself—to become “a different person.”
Europe in general and Greece in particular also offered Merrill a new sexual freedom—at first the chance to build a life with Claude, his partner at the time, and later to connect with new partners. At the time, Greece was something of a sexual playground for tourists; Merrill and Jackson both had affairs with young Greek men. For Merrill, however, Greece’s strongest attraction seems to have been the modern Greek language itself, that of Constantine Cavafy, a poet Merrill greatly admired and would go on to translate. But it wasn’t Merrill’s facility in the language that drew him to Greece: just the opposite, in fact. Though he spoke French, German and some Italian and had studied ancient Greek at Yale, demotic Greek was new to him when he first arrived on the continent. That lack of facility in the language lent mystery and glamour to his encounters there.
In a 1981 interview, J. D. McClatchy asked Merrill what he found in Greece. His response was telling:
Things that have mostly disappeared, I’m afraid. The dazzling air, drowsy waterfronts. Our own ignorance, even: a language we didn’t understand two words of at first. That was a holiday! You could imagine that others were saying extraordinarily fascinating things—the point was to invent, if not what they were saying, at least its implications, its overtones. Also, in those days foreign tourists were both rare and welcome, and the delighted surprise with which the Greeks acknowledged our ability to put two words together, you know, was irresistible.
The subject of the poem “After Greece” is, ultimately, that ignorance—a traveler’s fascination with a new and thrilling landscape, language and culture. Of course, this condition was, by its very nature, fleeting, but “After Greece” was written in a time when that stage of mystery—of an ignorance that made Greece glamorous and forced the imagination to fill in the blanks—was still almost complete. Even so, the poem foresees how fleeting and problematic that mystery is by its very nature.
The poem begins with a few images of the kind one might find in a brochure advertising a cruise to the Greek Islands—Aegean light, olives, huge pale stones, columns, and temples in ruin. But these images are rendered as dreamlike, almost surreal: “Rain made the huge, pale stones shine from within.” And the moonlit man who steps between the columns is, like a figure in an erotic dream, unnamed. Like the columns he makes his entrance between, he is made more glamorous by virtue of how little we can know about him. The man, the light, the stones, the columns, the olive oil, cyclamen and water—are presented as platonic ideals, their specifics erased. Each image feels, in a way, more elemental, essential, and real for being divorced from context.
Next the reader learns that the speaker has sailed home only to question the very notion of “home”—“But where is home—these walls? These limbs? The very spaniel underfoot/Races in sleep, toward what?” Home is neither a building nor the humans and pets within; even the guests at his party feel like strangers. Far from the dreamlike clarity of the poem’s initial images, the speaker describes his room as “Smeared by reflection onto the far hemlocks.” Though the primary meaning of “reflection” here may well be literal—the room’s light is distorted by a mirror or a window—its secondary meaning seems more resonant: the rooms of home are smeared—can’t be seen clearly—because they give the reader too much cause for reflection. Too much personal history, too much biographical detail, interferes with the speaker’s clarity of vision—and the poet’s imagination.
The speaker finds partial respite in dreams that transport him back to the Acropolis’s Erectheion—the ancient Greek temple that is perhaps best known for its caryatids, who in the speaker’s dream become his “great-great grandmothers/Erect there, peering/Into a globe of red Bohemian glass”—distinctly unGreek. Like a fortune teller’s crystal ball, that red glass globe summons Greece—its graces, furies, and fates, but not, tellingly, its muses—into the speaker’s American home. Instead of being comforting figures, however, they make demands of the speaker, wanting him to translate the meanings of his 20th-century American existence into terms they can understand. “They seem anxious to know/What holds up heaven nowadays.” The effort to explain his world makes the speaker anxious. He begins by trying to contend with weighty abstractions. “I start explaining how in that vast fire/Were other irons—well, Art, Public spirit/Ignorance, economics, Love of Self/Hatred of Self, a hundred more,/Each burning to be felt . . . .”
But translation proves impossible. The speaker distrusts these abstractions and finds himself missing the elemental objects he experienced in Greece: “salt, wine, olive, the light, the scream—” Even as he expresses longing for objects and events that don’t need to be translated, that can just be experienced for themselves as essentials, the very act of naming changes them into something threatening:
No! I have scarcely named you
And look, in a flash you stand full-grown before me,
Row upon row, Essentials,
Dressed like your sister caryatids,
Or tombstone angels jealous of their dead
With undulant coiffures, lips weathered, cracked by grime,
And faultless eyes gone blank beneath the immense
Zinc and gunmetal northern sky. . .
Like the Greek gods, each of whom is a complex of elements and abstractions—sea, sun, moon, wisdom, war, love—imagined in human form, each remembered element becomes a stone figure—a symbol of itself—but in doing so she loses freshness, life, and glamour; the harsh light of the northern sky only reveals her grime and the blankness of her eyes. Once named, even the elemental can’t help but become an abstraction. In doing so, it loses its depth and truth.
Ultimately, the need to explain, and the weight of all those abstractions—art, public spirit, ignorance, economics, etc.—interfere with the ability of the speaker to describe Greece as he experienced it. All he can do is raise a glass to his memory of Greece and the way he felt when he was there, and pray to survive “its meanings, and my own.” The weight of language—as contrasted with the gorgeous weightlessness of sound unencumbered by meaning—makes all the difference in this poem. Especially now that he is back in a place where he has mastered the language—and as a poet, Merrill’s very identity depends on that mastery—the poem’s speaker can no longer experience the world except through language. It’s a credit to Merrill’s brilliance that he used the medium of language to convincingly convey both the allure of experience unmediated by language and the disappointment and inevitable failure of trying to use language to re-conjure that state.
Another theme that runs through this poem is the idea of weightiness. At its start, one Doric capital effortlessly balances “a heaven of fixed stars.” Later, the sea holds the speaker afloat—but only just barely—when he sails for home. In the speaker’s American house, we find a related but more confusing image—the home’s “warm, lit halls, with rivets forced/Through drapery, and nothing left to bear.” What is it that once was but no longer needs to be borne by the halls of the home? A clue comes in the lines that follow; we’re told that the graces, furies and fates conjured up in the speaker’s dreams are “anxious to know/What holds up heaven nowadays.” Since they’re being imagined as caryatids, woman-shaped columns whose job it is to hold up the temple ceiling, their preoccupation with holding heaven up makes perfect sense.
But the walls of the speaker’s home no longer need to bear the notion of a heaven; the imagination that enables the speaker to imagine a “heaven of fixed stars” over Greece falls flat in America. The same speaker who could see the Greek landscape in clear and luminescent images becomes bogged down in personal detail back in the States. Disenchantment begins even on the journey home: the sea holds up his boat, but only just barely. What was effortless in a landscape shorn of context becomes hard work in a land in which the speaker bears the burdens of language, personal history, and the expectations of others.
But how does “After Greece” fit in with the body of poems Merrill went on to write about his adopted land? Rachel Hadas has written helpfully and perceptively on the sub-themes found in Merrill’s poems about Greece. She lists four of these, explaining that some of those poems:
[. . .] for example, use Greece as a backdrop or stage set; others locate Greece or Greekness in a particular person; some are love poems which might be set anywhere (or might they?); and some poems see the country, or some aspect of it, as a gift or heirloom, a keepsake to be both cherished and handed on.
“After Greece,” begins by using that country as a stage set, and ends with the speaker wanting to treat Greece as a keepsake to be cherished. Ultimately, though, it’s about how what’s most valuable about being a traveler in a strange land can’t be kept or passed on, how it loses its value over time, and not only when the traveler returns to the cold northern light of home. The curiosity that led Merrill to learn modern Greek, to live in Athens and become familiar with Greek landscapes and customs, inevitably erased the “ignorance” that made the land so magical to him for so long. “Dazzling air” and “drowsy waterfronts” may still be found in Greece—but the innocence of the absolute beginner can’t last for long.