“A Window Fiery-Mild”: The Role of Venice in The Book of Ephraim

The Book of Ephraim is a very “literary” work and perhaps never more so than in its Venetian sections (V and W). It is my contention that Section V (the letter V, not the Roman numeral) constitutes not only a major turning-point in the work, but also a significant declaration of Merrill’s literary aims. As often with Merrill, the declaration is cloaked in disarming self-irony and has for this reason perhaps been overlooked or misunderstood by many critics. One of the reasons for this misapprehension is a failure to catch an important literary allusion towards the end of the section.

This is perhaps not so surprising, since the literary allusions are not only plentiful in this section but also often puzzling or tricky. A clear example is the apparently straightforward reference to Proust in the opening two lines: “Venise, pavane, nirvana, vice, wrote Proust / Justly in his day.” Only it seems Proust never said any such thing: Robert Polito, in his exhaustive guide to The Changing Light at Sandover, says in the entry under Proust: “the line that opens section V is not to be found in the work of this author.”

22 lines below we have an apparent quotation from Dante, with the Accademia bridge grumbling: “Per me va la gente nova.” It is in fact a hybrid from Inferno Canto III  (“Per me si va tra la perduta gente”) and Dante’s denunciation of the new commercial spirit of his native Florence in Canto XVI (“La gente nova e i subiti guadagni / orgoglio e dismisura han generata, / Fiorenza, sì che tu già ten piagni”[i]). So neither of these “quotations” is quite what it seems. However, they have introduced us to the two most important literary figures in this section—and, of course, to two major influences on Merrill’s poetry; Dante will dominate section W, which is written in terza rima, but he is even more crucial to the conclusion of section V, as I will attempt to demonstrate.

Other allusions are even less straightforward, since not openly declared. Don Adams points to the haunting presence of T.S. Eliot, with the picture of the crowd flowing over a bridge, and “the general aura of displacement and disillusionment that he creates.” Henry James is a possible subliminal presence; the palace in which he stayed and where he set the concluding section of The Wings of the Dove (and outside of which Merrill’s friend David Kalstone would ask for his ashes to be scattered) stands almost at the foot of the Accademia Bridge; Merrill’s best critic, Stephen Yenser, links him with the St James in the final lines of the section—a claim that I hope to demonstrate rather misses the point. Mark Bauer finds a clear reference to Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” in two words found at the conclusion of two separate lines: “There. Come.” (“Therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.”) This is perhaps not quite as far-fetched as it may first seem: Merrill is clearly engaged in confronting those influences that have made him most anxious, and Aidan Wasley has delineated the tension throughout Merrill’s works between the lure of “Yeats the eternalizing aesthete” and “Auden the humanizing rationalist.” Auden will be evoked in the next section: “And here is la Fenice where the Rake / Rose from the ashes of the High Baroque.” In his memoir, Another Person, Merrill describes that first performance of “The Rake” as “this pinnacle” from which “the twentieth century would be all downhill”; later, in Scripts for the Pageant, Merrill will evoke the evening once again, recalling the theatre’s “gilt and green / Amid which the Rake sparkled.”

The allusions are therefore not only literary. Music is equally important: section W refers to both Stravinsky and Wagner (the former is buried in Venice, and the latter died there). The fiery associations of the theatre’s name are especially appropriate, as Merrill refers to Flagstad and her “tones’ pure torch” as the “sky-folk […] go up in smoke.” These operatic fires are prepared for in the concluding lines of Section V—and the close connections between the two sections are emphasized, as Willard Spiegelman has pointed out, by the fact that Section V is the only one in the entire poem that is not end-stopped.

Venice is a city where such cultural connections and associations seem to come naturally. It has always been a city of fruitful encounters: lying between West and East, between land and water, it offers itself as a natural metaphor for hybrid or ambiguous states and, more to the point, for transformations and epiphanies. When describing the city, writers seem almost instinctively drawn to certain strains of imagery, no matter how often they have been used before (images of floating, of enchantment, or of unreal or incorporeal states); indeed, in some cases writers seem only able to see the city through the words of previous writers. Byron, for example, in the opening stanzas of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, clearly draws on a description of the city by Ann Radcliffe in her novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, despite the fact that Radcliffe herself had never actually been to Venice. As Mary McCarthy puts it, “nothing can be said here (including this statement) that has not been said before.” T. S. Eliot, as if to confirm the point, prefaces his Venetian poem, “Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar,” with an epigraph of fewer than 50 words that contains quotations from six different texts on Venice.

The Urtext that for some reason seems to hover behind many writers when describing Venice is The Tempest. It is certainly to be found in the lines from The Mysteries of Udolpho that influenced Byron:

[I]ts terraces, crowned with airy yet majestic fabrics, touched as they now were, with the splendour of the setting sun, appeared as if they had been called up from the ocean by the wand of an enchanter, rather than by mortal hands.

Byron states that he “saw from out the wave her structures rise / As from the stroke of the Enchanter’s wand!” The fact that he claims to have seen this from the Bridge of Sighs, whose small grated windows provide no such view, is perhaps the first clue to the fact that his is a purely literary vision. Shelley, in “Julian and Maddalo,” describes a trip across the lagoon by gondola, from which the city’s “temples and its palaces did seem / Like fabrics of enchantment piled to Heaven.” And 150 years later, the narrator of Hecht’s “Venetian Vespers” describes another Venetian sunset, which provides a “moving vision of a shapely mist, / Full of the splendor of the insubstantial.” Behind all of these descriptions lie Prospero’s words:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yes, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

There is apparently no direct allusion to The Tempest in Merrill’s Section V, although the play is crucial to the whole of The Book of Ephraim. Section F makes this clear enough, with the chimpanzee pointedly named Miranda. But if Shakespeare’s play is not directly alluded to in V, Giorgione’s painting of the same name is at the heart of the section (and will be returned to in Section X)—and an actual tempest, of course, concludes the section. We have, indeed, been expecting a storm to clear the air since at least Section R: “Late September is a choking furnace. // Let lightning strike.” The wish proves a fateful one, since in the same section Merrill’s friend Maya suffers her incapacitating stroke. It is not until Section V that the literal lightning arrives, in a powerful and highly significant pun: “lightning strikes the set—” The dash leads straight into the condensed and complex lyric that concludes the section (although, it, too, ends with a non-resolutory dash).

Although there are no direct quotations from Shakespeare’s play, one could say that this section sees Merrill take upon himself the role of Prospero—in particular, Prospero performing his most significant act. Just as the ousted Duke of Milan proclaims, “deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book,” so does Merrill astoundingly declare: “I’ve read Proust for the last time.” For those who suspect that this is a rhetorical gesture, it is worth reading his response to J. D. McClatchy’s query on this matter: he admits to having taken “a quick look” before writing the final ballroom scene of Sandover, but otherwise his eschewal holds true. And given the crucial importance of Proust to Merrill (in the same interview with McClatchy he accepts that “Proust has been the greatest influence on [his] career”), this is a major renunciation. Indeed, one could go so far as to consider it an artistic turning point. If Merrill is turning his back on Proust, perhaps one reason is that he is moving closer to the other great writer, whose presence has already been hinted at.

And this brings us to the literary allusion that seems to have been missed by critics. It comes at a key point in the complex lyric that describes the tempest and brings the section to its climax. It is a little odd that this reference should have gone unrecognized, given the title of the book in which The Book of Ephraim first appeared—Divine Comedies—and given the numerous references to Il Paradiso elsewhere in the text. The book actually begins with an epigraph from Canto XV of Il Paradiso; and in Section M, Merrill tells us that Dante really did visit heaven: “His Heaven, though, as one cannot but sense / Tercet by tercet, is pure Show and Tell.” And, of course, Section V leads directly into the first of the trilogy’s great Dantean passages in terza rima, each one of which ends with the image of the “stars,” like the different books of Dante’s Divina Commedia. (Terza rima is used in Mirabell, 8.8, and, significantly, in a section entitled “Venetian Jottings” in Scripts for the Pageant.)

In the final quatrain of the lyric that concludes Section V, Merrill refers to “St James’ / Vision of life.” As already noted, Yenser, in a brilliant discussion of the section, has glossed this as referring obliquely to Henry James, and also to the Apostle. Bauer declares that for one moment Merrill has chosen to beatify himself. Yenser’s reference to the Apostle is clearly correct, but he appears to have missed the literary allusion contained therein. In cantos XXIV-XXVI of Il Paradiso Dante undergoes what amounts to a series of interviews testing his suitability as a candidate for entry to Paradise: he is interrogated by Saints Paul, James and John on the qualities respectively of Faith, Hope and Love. The encounter with St James occurs in Canto XXV, in which Dante is questioned on Hope; it is therefore clear that when Merrill mentions “St James’ / Vision of life” he is referring to that virtue.

Canto XXV begins with an extremely important declaration by Dante about himself and his literary ambitions. Here are the lines in the translation by Robert and Jean Hollander:

Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,
to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand
so that it has made me lean for many years,

should overcome the cruelty that locks me out
of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
foe of the wolves at war with it,

with another voice then, with another fleece
shall I return a poet and, at the font
where I was baptized, take the laurel crown.

Dante says deliberately: “shall I return a poet” (“ritornerò poeta”): in their commentary the translators note that “no vernacular writer of lyric had ever used this term for himself before; it is traditionally reserved for the classical (Latin and Greek) poets.” These lines thus constitute a major statement of artistic independence, and are followed by the description of the encounter with St James and the disquisition on Hope. When Dante is questioned by the Apostle he gives replies that are closely connected with his literary ambitions:

Da molte stelle mi vien questa luce;
ma quei la distillò nel mio cor pria
che fu sommo cantor del sommo duce.

(This light comes down to me from many stars, / but he who first distilled it in my heart / was that exalted singer of our exalted Lord. [R. and J. Hollander])

With these lines Dante identifies his poetry with that of the first divinely inspired bard, David. He proceeds by declaring that after David he learned Hope from the Epistle of St James himself;[ii] to make the beneficence of this process clear he uses an image of fruitful rain, which he himself now pours forth upon others: “e in altrui vostra pioggia repluo.” St James, who has appeared to Dante wrapped in flames, indicates his pleasure with a manifestation of quivering lightning:

Mentr’io diceva, dentro al vivo seno
di quello incendio tremolava un lampo
subito e spesso a guisa di baleno.

(While I spoke, within the living core / of fire appeared a flare, quivering / like lightning in sudden and repeated flashes. [R. and J. Hollander])

The connections with Merrill’s lyric could not be clearer. We cannot fail to draw the conclusion that, like Dante, Merrill is here making a declaration of his literary ambitions. The section concludes with an image of a new opening: “A window fiery-mild, whose walked-through frame / Everything else, at sunset, hinged upon—” The storm has brought about a new beginning.

Everything in fact hinges upon the crucial pun that introduces the final lyric: “Lightning strikes the set—” The theatrical expression implies a removal of all the artifices of stage-scenery. It is therefore a reversal of what we find in Yeats’ Byzantium. In this apparently most artificial (and radically Byzantine) of cities, Merrill declares his intention to start afresh: “Never again / To overlook a subject for its image […]”

One could say that this has been a recurring theme in Merrill’s poetry: from Water Street onwards, the poet has been declaring his dissatisfaction with the artifices of his own poetry: “Goodness, how tired one grows / Just looking through a prism: / Allegory, symbolism. / I’ve tried, Lord knows // To keep from seeing double” (“To a Butterfly”). He has, so to speak, been constantly shattering “his little tumblers finely etched” (“Charles on Fire”). In the opening section of Ephraim he admits: “My downfall was word-painting. Exquisite / Peek-a-boo plumage, limbs aflush from sheer / Bombast unfurling through the troposphere …”

Nonetheless, in Section V something more radical seems to be under way. And the decision to use Venice as the setting for this metamorphosis is not a casual one. The city is at once a great cultural center (“A whole heavenly city”, as he declares in line 11—and the description will be used again by Auden in Scripts for the Pageant), but also the “unreal city” par excellence. Its ambiguous qualities are summed up in those words attributed to Proust: “Venise, pavane, nirvana, vice.” The earliest known example of a pavane, a stately processional dance, was published in Venice in 1508; it seems here to work as a symbol of artificial and ceremonious behavior.[iii] Nirvana, which literally means “blown out” like a candle, refers to a stillness of mind achieved after the fires of desire, aversion and delusion have been extinguished. As regards the word vice, one need only think of Venice’s reputation as the pleasure-house of Europe. A decidedly complicated, not to say contradictory characterization of the city, as befits its alleged author. One gets the sense that one of the great benefits of the storm, despite all the complexity of the lyric that describes it, is that it will strip the city to something more elemental and simple: the trio of words “crack! boom! flash!” have a satisfactory childish directness.

In the description of Venice in “our” day that opens the section, Merrill continues to play with the city’s intriguing ambiguities: it is both “heavenly” and “[s]inking”; it is both monumental and egotistic. The emphasis, however, seems continually to be on the negative side. Merrill trivializes the symbols of Venice, transforming St Theodore to “[a]n adolescent / And his slain crocodile.” The palaces on the Grand Canal are mere “empty-lit display / Rooms for glass companies.” Everything is “Show” (and the pun in the lines that refer to the “barometer / Stuck between Show and Shower” perhaps suggests subliminally the comparative adjective “showier”). If the egoism is “titanic”, the word “sinking” that precedes the adjective has ominous undertones (and the reference to Guggenheim four lines later reminds us that Peggy Guggenheim’s father died on the fateful voyage).

The narrator now focuses on the tourist-hordes, all intent on photographing themselves and the view: “focusing / Through tiny frames of anxiousness.” These lines recall a description of Merrill’s own father, in his poem “Scenes of Childhood” (Water Street): “Who focused your life long / Through little frames…” In both cases we have a sense of the observer missing the larger picture: such a picture as is offered by a great artist like Giorgione: “On the surface nothing less / Than earthly life in all its mystery: / Man, woman, child; a place.” (In Section X he will go beneath this surface, exploring the further mysteries revealed by “X rays of La Tempesta.”)

As elsewhere in the book, we can detect a note of personal ruefulness here, as Merrill reflects on his own position as a childless gay man, cut off from this particular aspect of the “mystery” of “earthly life”. Significantly the description of the painting is followed by the image of reflections on the “shatterproof glass” protecting the painting of “a fleet blur of couples / Many of whom, by now, have reproduced.” Mark Bauer, in his study of Yeatsian influence on Merrill, makes a connection with lines from “Sailing to Byzantium”: “The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees, / Those dying generations…” At this point the narrator poses the question about the two great artists who have been specifically named in the section: “Who is Giorgione really? Who is Proust?”

Ephraim himself provides the answer regarding the latter: “ABOVE ME   A GREAT PROPHET THRONED ON HIGH.” And Merrill acknowledges the justice of this, pointing to the four great symbols of time regained—“bell, flagstone, napkin, fork”—that are found in the final chapters of the great work of that name, working “[t]he body’s resurrection, sense by sense”; the “flagstone”, of course, is specifically connected with the memory of Venice that is so crucial to the novel. After this evocation of these powerful symbols Merrill makes his startling declaration: “I’ve read Proust for the last time. Looked my fill / At the Tempesta, timeless in its fashion.”

As if declaring a preference to these major artistic achievements Merrill states: “Now give me the alerted vacuum / Of that black gold-earringed baby all in white / (Maya, Maya, your Félicité?) / Her father focuses upon.” He plays with the notion that the baby could be Maya’s new representative, but more significant is the subsequent declaration that he is grateful that he himself has lost his camera: “Never again / To overlook a subject for its image, / To labor images till they yield a subject— / Dram of essence from the flowering field.” Re-evoking the earlier lines in which the Grand Canal seemed to demand that the visitor should pose for a picture, he declares that he has “No further need henceforth of this / Receipt (gloom coupleted with artifice) / For holding still, for being held still.” And it is at this point that “lightning strikes the set—”, at once destroying both the gloom and the artifice.

Venice, the stage-set, is dismantled and becomes the site for an authentic revelation. We move from artifice to miracle. The sixteen lines that follow are some of the most extraordinary—and most complex—lines in the entire book. One reason for the complexity would seem to be the suppression of the personal pronouns, as if in reproach to the “monumental / ‘I’” that opened the description of Venice. All sixteen lines appear to constitute a single sentence; however, the most frequent punctuation mark is the elongated dash—which both opens and closes the passage. “Closes” is probably the wrong verb, since the most important effect of this dash is to suggest a continual openness to new experiences, so that at the end we are carried directly from Section V to Section W. The other effect is to make the single sentence an embodiment of its very subject matter: transformation.

The “old man of the Sea,” referred to in line 2 of the passage, is, of course, Proteus, the shape-shifter; as legend has it, if he is held onto (“held still,” as earlier lines put it) through all his transformations, he must answer truthfully. These lines, therefore, while describing a series of dazzling and bewildering transformations, also offer the promise of a revelation of the changeless truth at their heart. This, it appears, is “St James’ / Vision of life.” With skillful use of synesthesia, sometimes in highly compressed form (“Cold hissing white”), Merrill suggests a brilliant (alchemic?) fusion of the four elements: the wood of the bridge, the water of the canal, the turbulent air of the storm and the fire of the lightning. He manages to suggest that each element is on the point of turning into another one, and uses a famous symbol of Venetian creativity to make the point: “Air and water blown glass-hard.” Previously in the section the image of glass had only suggested Venetian commercialism (those “glass companies” that have taken over the palaces on the Grand Canal); now it assumes other associations, becoming the very symbol of metamorphosis.

The language itself is in constant change, with its turbulent mixture of registers, ranging from the apocalyptic to the comic: “crack! boom! flash!” could, indeed, come from a child’s comic (how different from the solemn “Datta Dayadhvam Damyata” of the Waste Land). The very words seem to twist and reshape themselves on the page: the “monster” becomes a “monstrance,” and thus the idea of “show” now redeems itself by taking on religious connotations. There is undeniably a certain ambiguity in the overall tone of the lyric; the image of the “blown fuse” is clearly not a triumphant one (Yenser suggests that Merrill is here casting an “ironic glance at his own virtuoso effort”); however, the succession of bewildering transformations concludes in the undoubtedly affirmative proclamation of “St James’ / Vision of life”. This is followed by the first alternative in punctuation to a dash (if we except the exclamation marks after the monosyllabic words depicting the storm visually and aurally): a colon introduces the final miraculous image of the city transformed to an open window. The glass of this window still recalls its fiery origins, but it is now “fiery-mild”—a combination of adjectives Merrill had used in an early poem, “The Dunes” (The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace), to describe a condition of “Absolute innocence.”

We step through this window into the “flashing pink-and-golden calm” of Section W, where the poet meets his nephew Wendell. This section acts as a kind of curious mirror-image of another great episode from Il Paradiso, the poet’s encounter with his ancestor Cacciaguida (from which the epigraph to Ephraim is taken). After viewing his nephew’s skillful but savage portraits of representatives of mankind (“[d]oomed, sick, selfish, dumb as shit”, as the boy describes it), the poet takes him for a walk through the city. His nephew announces that “We’re really rats, we’re greedy, cruel, unclean,” but Merrill then says that after glimpsing some real examples of the species the two men “smile / Because in fact we’re human and not rats, / And this is Venice.” The city, that is to say, acts to counter Wendell’s embittered view of humankind. A “wrong turn” then discovers the house where Wagner “once dwelt” and reminds Merrill of the climax of the Ring, in which Brünnhilde “spurn[s] / Heaven’s own plea” in favor of human love and death.

The movement of these two sections is therefore towards a renewed hope in a shared humanity. Dante may be the guiding light, but it is the humanity rather than the divinity of his vision that here inspires the poet. Wendell, we know, is in fact a fictitious character (one of the few in the book) and almost certainly serves Merrill in his commitment to renounce a style of art lacking in empathy and human warmth. “I lose touch with the sublime,” he says in the closing tercets of Section W. In the very last lines of the section, written throughout in apparently effortless terza rima, Merrill takes one of Dante’s most sublime images—the stars that close each book of the Divine Comedy—and with gentle tact domesticates (which is to say, humanizes) it, without losing any of its touching beauty or power:

Now early light sweeps under a pink scatter
Rug of cloud the solemn, diehard stars.

[i] “The new inhabitants and the sudden gains, / Pride and extravagance have in thee engendered,/ Florence, so that thou weep’st thereat already.” (Translation: H. W. Longfellow.)

[ii] Commentators note that the Epistle is usually attributed to St James the Lesser

[iii] In Mirabell 3:6 we find the lines: “Our peacock marks time back and forth from One / To Zero: a pavane / Andante in an alley of green oaks.” Merrill here appears to be drawing on the possible etymological derivation of the word from the Italian pavone, a peacock.

About Gregory Dowling

Gregory Dowling grew up in Bristol, UK, and studied at Oxford University. Since 1979 he has lived in Italy; he is a professor of American literature at the University of Venice. Apart from his academic interests he has published four thrillers, set in England and Italy, and he has written and regularly updates the sightseeing pages for the Time Out Guide to Venice. His most recent book is a study of the poet David Mason (Story Line Press).
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  1. Merrill’s book inscriptions run from the mundane to the fascinating (with copies containing original and unique verse being especially prized among collectors).

    Hard to say how well Merrill knew fellow creative arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim, and perhaps harder to understand why she threw away the book’s dust jacket(!), but I still wish I had the 90 pounds back in London 1988 to buy THE FIRE SCREEN in hardcover, which Merrill in 1971 inscribed “To Peggy Guggenheim, Mistress of Many Ceremonies. . . .”

    Such an elegant and understated compliment, all the lovelier for her later cameo in Section V of The Book of Ephraim. Thank you, Moira, for your thoughtful critique.

  2. (I mean Gregory, not Moira…. )

  3. I am embarrassed by the fact that I wrongly identified the first of the three saints who interrogate Dante. It is, of course, St Peter, representing Faith, who interrogates Dante in Canto 24, not St Paul.

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