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Literary Fanmail: The Letters of Harold Bloom and James Merrill

Heather Cass White Unearths the Correspondence Between a Poet and His Faithful Reader

In the spring of 1976, the critic Harold Bloom (1930-2019) lived out a seductive readerly fantasy: he got in touch with the author of a poem he loved and offered his thoughts on a work in progress. The poet was James Merrill (1926-1995) and the work in progress was his two-hundred-page poem Mirabell’s Books of Number (1978). A sequel of sorts to Merrill’s knockout twenty-six-part poem “The Book of Ephraim” (1976), Mirabell would become the second part of his epic triology-plus-coda, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

“Ephraim” became its first part, as well as the first detailed public account of Merrill’s two decades’ worth of sessions at a Ouija board with his partner David Jackson. The eponymous “Ephraim” was Merrill’s and Jackson’s guide to the “Other World” of the board and its many voices of the dead. Merrill and Jackson spoke with Ephraim, gay and witty like his mediums, for years, generating many pages of transcripts, written down by Merrill while he and Jackson each kept a hand on the overturned teacup they used as planchette. “The Book of Ephraim” is an astonishing poem, both autobiographical and cosmic in scope, funny and moving, at once confidently, conversationally loose and kaleidoscopic in its formal inventiveness.

Despite the considerable sugar of Merrill’s genius, however, it is also a strong dose of medicine for the reader to swallow. Aside from the information Ephraim reveals—for example, that nuclear energy, including cancer treatment, destroys souls—there is the fact of Merrill’s belief itself. Did he really believe that he and Jackson were selected by otherworldly powers to receive life- and history-altering information by means of a dime-store parlor game? In a word, yes.

Moreover, he discovered in 1976 that those powers were not finished with him. In late spring of that year, just weeks after Bloom’s first note to Merrill, the board announced that it was time for the poet and his companion to sit down to it again in earnest, to receive instruction and produce “poems of science” that would justify the ways of “God Biology” to man.

In the midst of what drew them together, however, was what rightly, in both of their views, kept them apart: Merrill was the poet, Bloom the reader.

It is hard to imagine a reader more receptive to the ambition and intricacy of Merrill’s vision than Harold Bloom in the late 1970s. In 1976 he, like Merrill, had just published his touchstone work, four books that laid out his total vision of the creative process: The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), and Poetry and Repression (1976). Bloom’s thesis about creativity, that the true and invariable subject of any poem is the drama of its own making, is in its way as outlandish and absolute as anything the spirits dictated to Merrill.

Central to Bloom’s thinking on the subject was his reading in Gnosticism, the heretical second-century doctrine in which all of creation is merely a shadow world, alienated from its creator who exists far apart from it. Comparing that mythology to the Christian one, Hans Jonas, in The Gnostic Religion (1958), writes that while many of their stories are similar, all the action in Gnostic stories takes place “in the heights, in the divine or angelic or daimonic realm, a drama of pre-cosmic persons in the supranatural world, of which the drama of man in the natural world is but a distant echo” (xxxi).

A divine world, in other words, not unlike the one possessing James Merrill in his teacup seances under the domed ceiling of a room at the top of his house in Stonington, Connecticut. In 1977, at the height of their immersions in their respective Other Worlds, Bloom and Merrill found much to discuss. In the midst of what drew them together, however, was what rightly, in both of their views, kept them apart: Merrill was the poet, Bloom the reader. Merrill, an experienced artist, protected a core unwillingness to look to closely at his own process, while Bloom, whose deepest interest was in having more great poems to read, struggled not to interfere with the miracle as he watched it take shape. In their final exchange they briefly traded places, Merrill becoming the reader of The Flight to Lucifer (1980), Bloom’s only published fiction. Although their letters ended, their personal friendliness, and Bloom’s readerly devotion, did not. Merrill remained in Bloom’s canon of essential post-war American poets until the end of both their lives.

All of Bloom’s letters to Merrill are in the latter’s archive at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). Merrill’s to Bloom are in Bloom’s private papers (BLOOM). Merrill Letters Copyright © 2022 The Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University. Bloom’s letters are reproduced by permission of Harold Bloom, LLC c/o Writers’ Representatives LLC, New York. All rights reserved. What follows are edited selections from the originals.

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
8 March 1976
New Haven, CT

Dear Mr. Merrill:

This is simply a fan-letter, requiring no reply. I’ve read your poems steadily since the First Poems of 1951, but for a very long time with cold admiration, resisting an art that provoked inchoate defenses in me. My eye increasingly was dazzled, but the me myself didn’t want to, somehow wouldn’t be moved. This is of no interest to you or to me, but just the background to my reading through Divine Comedies this weekend. The resistance has crumbled; each page of the book is inevitable, as beautiful and poignant as Stevens.

Damascus-road experiences are not usual for me—I am deeply indebted to you for your work.

Sincerely,
Harold Bloom

First Poems: First Poems by James Merrill (Knopf, 1951). Merrill’s first book with a major publisher.

Divine Comedies: Divine Comedies by James Merrill (Knopf, 1976). Contains “The Book of Ephraim,” which became the first part of Merrill’s epic The Changing Light at Sandover (Knopf, 1982).

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To Harold Bloom

BLOOM
16 March 1976
Athens, Greece

Dear Mr. Bloom—

Your letter not only makes my day, it bids fair to make my 2nd half-century. If you feel like Saul, I feel like Ganymede, to be so taken up, by such a discerner of peaks and horizons as yourself.

Sincerely,
James Merrill

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
31 March 1977
New Haven, CT

Dear James:

I write to thank you for your graciousness in sending me Metamorphosis of 741. The broad tradition (Talmudic as much as Kabbalistic, Neoplatonist as well as Gnostic) tells us that the daimon is as much sex-changer as shape-shifter. I can’t dispute 741 in his assertion that homosexual love is just 4000 years old, but I doubt it, because there is an idea of the daimon as muse going back as far as time goes (only 4000 years, but are we to say that exactly just there that our ignorance begins, that there must have been fundamental change?) and also the earliest poets (again, just 4000 yrs or so) were shamans, and always had been first one sex, and then the other. I think a deeper clue to all this is Kabbalistic. The Kabbalistic ‘familiar’ must be of the subject’s own sex, and the praxis of later Kabbalism (like that of Gnosis) tends to allow heterosexual love only in sodomistic modes. I take it that the straight strong poets truly bum-buggered their ladies.

I recommend to you one text, the Chaldean Oracles, (unless they might conflict with the Merrillean Oracles). I also send you the following sentences, from Gershom Scholem’s essay, “Walter Benjamin and his Angel”:

“…the personal angel of each human being who represents the latter’s secret self and whose name nevertheless remains hidden from him. In angelic shape, but in part also in the form of his secret name, the heavenly self of a human being (like everything else created) is woven into a curtain hanging before the throne of God. This angel, to be sure, can also enter into opposition to, and a relation of strong tension with, the earthly creature to whom he is attached…”

On this authority, Ephraim cannot be your personal angel (being named) nor can 741 (who is too amiable). I must assume that your further work-in-progress will reveal, not the name, but something of the identity of your veritable angel.

Homage and strength to you—
Harold

Metamorphosis: The Metamorphosis of 741, by James Merrill. A chapbook, printed by Banyan Press in an edition of 440.

Chaldean Oracles: Chaldean Oracles and Theurgy: Mysticism, Magic and Platonism in the Later Roman Empire by Hans Lewy (Etudes Augustiniennes, 1978).

Gershom Scholem’s essay: “Walter Benjamin and his Angel.” Collected in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis (Knopf Doubleday, 1976).

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To Harold Bloom

BLOOM
2 April 1977

Dear Harold,

(The italic type “element” varies treacherously from the roman keyboard, so I revert.) Part of me yearns to study all the texts you mention; another part (which I shall probably obey) says that I wouldn’t be able to go deeply enough into them to glean much more than ornament, and that I already have plenty of that, if of a sadly dimestore variety. For better or worse it will stand for my Common Touch, and so reassure a certain kind of reader.

As to the “personal angel”, he may well have appeared and been rebuffed. A voice we took as hostile and domineering sent 741 (to whom we finally gave a name: Mirabell) as a substitute. Mirabell is a sort of 3rd generation fallen angel, born after the Fall, and only able to mythologize it. Luckily there are a few grand “eye-witness” passages early on, before we break off with his superior. What happened 4000 years ago? According to Mirabell after this point things are gently but firmly taken out of Nature’s hands. Before, all had been Chance; after, there would be No Accident. The fallen angels are set to work, by God Biology, in a Research Lab (so called; and organized with the help of Nefertiti herself) where they “clone” just about everything that relates to an elite of some 2 million souls on Earth. (Now and then it seems to backfire. Rimbaud, for instance, was too avant-garde for God B, but the quality of his unwritten masterpiece put him in a position to oversee the writing of “The Waste Land.”)—I’d better stop. Whatever you think after reading this far, it has helped me to stand back, for once, and take a squint.

Dear Harold, forgive me for running on. I am so heartened by your support. I would love to sit behind curtains, like the ladies in Genji, and hear you talk about Ephraim—but of course don’t dare.

Yours ever,
James

Genji: The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu (Houghton Mifflin, 1925).

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
Tues
[5 April 1977]
New Haven, CT

Dear James:

No! No! No! I wasn’t suggesting that you read anything! The poet of Book of Ephraim + of what I’ve seen of Mirabell ought—indeed must—go on just as he is going! I was merely curious as to what you had done with your daimon or Kabbalistic maggid, since he/she couldn’t be either Ephraim or Mirabell. Don’t read anything that will interfere with Mirabell or the third scripture, when that comes—

HOMAGE—Harold

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
Wed evening
[6 April 1977]
New Haven, CT

Dear James:

I scrawl this by my fireside, at midnight, on this absurdly frozen April night— I came home with xerox of 1st half of Mirabell + have sat by fire drinking fundador, evading business letters, + reading though draft of Mirabell (2). Dazzled I am; what to do with the “science” I don’t know—when we are dead long enough it will be all like old alchemy anyway, as your wit realizes—but that isn’t to be your concern. You don’t need to read “sources”—you are becoming a source + must be totally audacious.

Homage again—Harold

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
24 October 1977
New Haven, CT

Dearest James—

I’ve just re-read Mirabell straight through and I send this note in gratitude + admiration but also in a firm plea. As I read through, the material in caps (call it REVELATION) began to seem too frequent + too long, and the poetry by Merrill totally exquisite but I wanted more of it—longer stretches + longer frequencies— + less of the REVELATION caps. I know you care for the TRUTH of your vision (or their vision) but I beg for a proportion of caps to Merrill more on the order of Book of Ephraim. I can’t be wholly wrong about this, because as I read through I kept wanting them to say less and you to react + write more.

Yield to my urging!

HOMAGE—
Harold

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To Harold Bloom

BLOOM
29 October 1977
Stonington, CT

Dear Harold—

Thank you for your letter. Indeed, it had been my original thought to observe these proportions (lower to upper case)—but it was not to be. There were first of all my own limitations: my frequent incapacity to ‘react’ during the revelation. I should either have to cut some 2000 lines of theirs or add twice that many of my own—and what would these contribute beyond elaboration of the basic postures of doubt + credulity I rightly (I think) warn the reader will be kept minimal? These spirits aren’t gnomic. Or else they have taken my measure and decided that it had all better be spelt out; that, left to myself, I might very well have botched the complex message.

Now that I have the material for Vol III on paper if not perfectly assimilated, I can look at the form of Mirabell with more assurance. The capitals perhaps remain an obstacle, but I no longer miss these greater stretches of my own voice you ask for. Vol III—while retaining here and there the manner of the 2 preceding books—will have at its core a number of dramatic scenes—conversations among the angels, etc—as if the drone of the single instructing presence (Mirabell) had finally arrived at polyphony—well. None of this may be to the point. I do see your point, + will sight along it in the months to come.

Yours,
James

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
Monday
[Fall, 1977]
New Haven, CT

Dear James—

I’d no sooner sent off my letter than I decided not to send it. Your letter confirms my after-judgment. Your trilogy is in the hands of your daemon, and he (it) will see it through properly. Doubtless the final version (which I look forward to receiving) will dispel my momentary doubt.  There is also the conservatism of the recent convert to Merrillisme to be discounted. Like any convert, I am in danger of becoming a fundamentalist of the First Idea (Ephraim). And—in any case—my business is to interpret what you have made, and not to mix in the making.

Homage always, as you stand always in my pallid sun.

Yours—
Harold

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To James Merrill

WUSTL
Sunday
[Fall, 1977]
New Haven, CT

Dear James:

This is both a letter of admiration and a kind of [Gnostic] note of contrition. I have read through the final Mirabell this weekend. My doubts are quite assuaged by this reading. The poem is itself, a coherence and a splendor, as much surpassing Ephraim as that wonder surpassed all previous Merrill, for me. I will have to read the poem many times more, but I see already that it speaks to the divinating or pneumatic self in me quite as much as Gnosis and Kabbalah speak. And that, for me, is the truest test—you are writing an antithetical Scripture, and writing it greatly.

—Harold

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To Harold Bloom

BLOOM
21 November 1977
Stonington, CT

To think that it could come to this:

My ignorance is Harold’s bliss!

Yours,
James

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To James Merrill

11 Feb 1979

Dear James:

This is a belated letter in response to my recent reading—in sequence—of Ephraim, Mirabell, Scripts, and Epilogue. I had uttered nervous cries in transit, heretofore, in the mistaken impression that the world of the Pleroma was crowding out J.M., but a reading in proper sequence, carried out through a long weekend, demonstrated I had been mistaken. Much that is initially disproportionate achieves perspective when the Divine Comedies is read as the sphere it is.

As I have become more Gnostic by the day, I brood much on the emergent theology of your visions, but so far they seem to me neither Gnostic nor orthodox (I read Proust as Gnostic). But, in our late time, an evasive poetic theology is doubtless best.

Homage always—
Harold

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To Harold Bloom

WUSTL
17 February 1979
Stonington, CT

Dear Harold—

Your letter is a great relief + a grand reward. I hadn’t enjoyed the sense that you thought I was going astray. (Yet, no accident? Don’t your misgivings help me to take bearings + plunge ahead?) It’s still so hard for me to believe it’s done, and done more or less right, that I drink several times a day, these days, from your continuing cup.

Now your gnostic fantasy has been my companion all week. As I’ve told you, I took pains to know nothing of these matters while writing the poem. Still, I read with such growing fascination, to the very heartbeat of a dream whose denoument couldn’t be dreamed, that I don’t after all feel deprived. It is a bit relentless, and the personages at first grandly antipathetic—but I ended by caring intensely. A 2nd reading may help show how you brought that off—or is it a balm secreted by the visions themselves?

So: homage to you

Yours ever,
James

 

your gnostic fantasy: The Flight to Lucifer, by Harold Bloom (Vintage Books, 1980). Bloom’s only published work of fiction.

Heather Cass White
Heather Cass White
Heather Cass White is the editor of The New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore (FSG 2017), and the author of Books Promiscuously Read: Reading as a Way of Life (FSG 2021). She is working on a book of Harold Bloom’s letters.





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