James Merrill’s “The Friend of the Fourth Decade”

David Kalstone, a longtime professor of English at Rutgers University and, prior to that, at Harvard, was one of James Merrill’s closest friends. An expert on Sir Philip Sidney, Kalstone extensively studied 20th-century Americans as well; his second book Five Temperaments (1977) included a chapter on Merrill along with Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery. Nine years earlier, Merrill had published “The Friend of the Fourth Decade”—which presents the friend as a composite of himself and Kalstone— in The New Yorker. Subsequently, this poem appeared as the second one in Merrill’s 1969 book of poems The Fire Screen. Finally, after Kalstone’s death in 1986, Merrill finished the introduction to Kalstone’s final book, Becoming a Poet. This work was published in 1989.

This linking of biographical details from both writers’ lives matters because “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” presents a friendship where the mythic and the personal have become completely inseparable. As a result, Merrill hits one of the most appealing tones in all of his work. Simultaneously good humored, dignified, and self-critical, this tone creates the urbanity for which he, with the help of critics like Kalstone, has long been praised. Urbanity, however, does not encompass trust. The “DANGER” in the last sonnet of “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” is real even though presented as a “dream.” Nor is it simply the risk to physical life that is at stake here. Through his friend’s adventure and potential misadventure, the question of when the person becomes subsumed in the literary myth he has made continually re-emerges.

Kalstone is direct at the start of Five Temperaments. His will be a book about how poets write about themselves: “This is a book about the ways poets find to write about their lives. Or, more specifically the ways some contemporary American poets have chosen to describe and dramatize their lives.” So the intermixing of the personal with the type or even the mythic is part of his project. In the chapter on Merrill, when he discusses “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” the stress falls on the dialogue—both in person and then through postcards—around which this poem centers. The friend who comes to visit the speaker at his home is really an alter-ego interrogating him about his commitment “to memory, to personal history, to a house and settling down.” Subsequently, as he sends back postcards from the exotic places he visits, Kalstone argues that he embodies a “dream of escape.” Merrill then plays out the oscillation between passion and its exhaustion in the poems that appear later in The Fire Screen. Indeed, the book’s title refers to the embroidered fire screen that appears in a later poem in the same volume (“Mornings in a New House”). For Kalstone, this allusion fixes the experience of “The Friend of the Fourth Decade” in the “withering perspective” of art created in the wake of passion’s withdrawal.

This dark eventuality shadows “The Friend of the Fourth Decade.” The poem begins at sunset, not only of the day but also of the cultural hegemony of the United States. The flag is “madly whipping” in the wind, and no one except the speaker and, perhaps, his friend seem to realize that the “time” has come to “lower” it. From this perspective the friend’s “tactful disinvolvement” with the political implications of tourism abroad—and especially sexual tourism—is disturbing. Does he go to exotic places just to have one last fling while his money and American power hold out? With unrelenting candor, the speaker keeps this question open. As the friend writes back in one postcard, “beggars” follow him because the “smell of money” lures them after him. Most importantly, he expects to return to the United States since “Honeymoons end.” But another possibility emerges as well. Punning on “stripes,” the speaker wonders whether his friend feels some kind of “chastisement” while living in the midst of American power and affluence. Is the deviance that plays out abroad what he would be punished for at home? The poem also allows this question to stand.

That these questions are not abstract ones but highly personal is also suggested by the opening details. The home the friend visits is Merrill’s living room in Stonington, CT which he shared with his partner, David Jackson. From there they conducted many of the Ouija board sessions, both before and after the writing of “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” which would culminate in the epic The Changing Light at Sandover. Similar precision characterizes the dinner presented. “Veal birds” from “Fannie Farmer” looks like a throwaway detail, but it clearly refers to Merrill’s lifelong interest in cooking and entertaining. Lastly, the conclusion of the first sonnet evokes Merrill himself when it describes him as becoming what he has studied. The sun, viewed through the “crimson” stained glass transforms him “To that of Anyman with ears aglow,/ On a black cushion, gazing inward, mute.” Perhaps the speaker has in mind the Everyman morality plays which were part of the period Kalstone studied and with which he was certainly familiar. Or perhaps he is alluding to the image of his friend as a sun god—even if that sun is setting—whose muteness underscores the shock that this contemplated adventure will entail. At the same time, his his ears stick out (just as Merrill’s did), a detail that checks the grandiose reference to the “sun god.” The personal is never completely subsumed by the mythic in this poem. Rather, Merrill oscillates between them.

One effect of this oscillation is that it creates a tone as good-humored as it is dignified. In part this tone reflects the friend’s knowledge of when the joke is on him. With respect to the beggars mentioned above, the end of the poem makes it hard to know who has victimized whom. If their poverty is clear, so is the friend’s vulnerability and self-consciousness:

I answer to whatever name they call,
Drink the sweet black condescending dregs,

Try on their hungers like a shirt of flame
(Well, a sports shirt of flame) whereby I’ve been

Picked clean, reborn each day increasingly
Conspicuous, increasingly unseen.

Hercules’ fatal shirt becomes a sports shirt; just as the sun-god’s garb doesn’t fit the middle-aged academic, neither does the hero’s. Yet by recognizing comedy in the situation, the friend also underscores his dignity. He remains true to the person he is and, especially, to the dream he is living out. The same good-humor also applies to the speaker. After hearing his friend tell of dipping postcards in water and watching their handwritten messages swirl away, the speaker tries the same experiment—including one sent by his mother—but does not succeed. Ruefully, but also bemusedly, he puts the cards away: “I put my postcards back upon the shelf./ Certain things die only with oneself.” Death looms, of course, but more immediate concerns, like the permanence of his mother’s connection to him as enacted in the mother tongue, also confront the speaker.

The effect of this good humor is that, despite their faults, we tend to like both the speaker and his friend. But do we trust them? That word never appears in “The Friend of the Fourth Decade.” But the very self-conscious way in which the friend raises the issue of tone should clue us into the seductiveness of their urbane exchange. Just as the friend recognizes his limitations and potential silliness, he also recognizes his gift for understanding what he hears, and, presumably, what he reads. Anticipating his trip, he finds himself “Tired of understanding what I hear/ The tones, the overtones; . . .” This boredom, or at least the potential for it, is an issue that Merrill would return to in The Changing Light at Sandover. In that poem, Merrill and Jackson find themselves alternately entranced by and irritated with Ephraim, the spirit who communicates with them from the afterlife. Critically, both feelings are related to Ephraim’s tone. On the one hand, the entrancement arises from “the tone/ We trusted most, a smiling Hellenistic/ Lightness from beyond the grave.” In this key, Ephraim’s practical advice is radically focused on finding pleasure in the present:

TAKE our teacher told us

On the other hand, trouble arises when refinement of taste and lightness in the face of death degenerate into an apparently bored superciliousness on Ephraim’s part. The latter, Merrill indicates, is “the tone we trusted not one bit/ Must everything be witty?” Ephraim’s quick, witty response suggests that good humor and an ultimately tragic perspective on human life need not be opposed: “AH MY DEARS/ I AM NOT SMILING, I SIMPLY WILL NOT SHED TEARS.”

Returning to “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” we can see that Ephraim’s linking of tragedy and good humor is anticipated by the conversation of the speaker and his friend. The dream at the end of the poem, as Kalstone suggests, brings into focus a temptation for the speaker. The dream reprises the fantasy of leaving behind the “civilization” in which both speaker and friend are enmeshed. As with the reference to Everyman, the speaker evokes this investment in terms of artifacts from the period Kalstone himself studied: “Prayers, accounts, long priceless scroll,/ Whip, hawk, prow queen, down to some last/ Lost comedy . . .” By describing this catalogue entirely in terms of writing, which is now being “gingerly unwound,” a sense of the finality of his friend’s choice emerges. The dream is really an interpretation of the life and culture in which both friends have lived and at least one is now dying. The abrupt shift to an operating room and the anxious concern as to whether the “patient” is still alive makes this point concrete. Yet the arrival of death—presaged by the drumbeat, the darkening of the eyes, the presence of the “perfect stranger”—is also joyful. Thus the friend greets it like his other lovers—or are they pickups?—with parted lips. The poem, in short, is the “last/ lost comedy” because to the end it has insisted on the pleasure of escape and has settled its ultimate “account” with death.

About Thomas Brennan

Thomas J. Brennan, S.J. is an Associate Professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. His book Trauma, Transcendence and Trust: Wordsworth, Tennyson and Eliot Thinking Loss (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) includes an epilogue on James Merrill. He also has had pieces appear in Victorian Poetry, The Coleridge Bulletin, The Explicator, and Notes and Queries.
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