August 1, 2013

Birth of Merrill: spitting on America

Stuart Merrill was born in Hempstead, New York on August 1, 1863. Much of his childhood, however, was spent in France, where his father was a diplomat in Paris. Among young Merrill's teachers was French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Merrill himself grew into this style of writing and published several works, mostly in French, though he was also a critic and translator.

Though Merrill returned to the United States to study at Columbia Law School in the 1880s, he preferred his life as a European. America, he thought, was too chauvinistic, while France was "the most sacred of countries." In fact, Merrill's longest poem was titled "Ma patrie, c'est l'Amérique et je crache dessus" ("My Homeland is America and I Spit on Her"). His major American book was Pastels in Prose (1890), a collection of French prose poems translated into English (with an introduction by William Dean Howells). Despite this, he was an admirer of Walt Whitman and believed there was a musical simplicity in English verse which he wanted to bring to French writing.

His poem "Soir de Tempête" ("Evening Storm")*:

Under a pallid veil of mist and fog
The sea hurls upon the rocks its panting foam.

The caverns, on the hollows of the iron cliffs,
Through the voices of the blue-green water moan toward hell.

On the horizon of the waves a ghost ship
Glides against a cloud the color of a Sodomite blush.

And in the shadow of the north where the petrels fly,
Precursory specters of supernatural evenings,

One hears the golden horn blasts resonate
And the drums of the triumphant lightning roar.

*Translated from the French with the help of my friend Erin Lynch.

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