Vernon Shetley: On "The Broken Home"

"The Broken Home," certainly among the richest of Merrill’s autobiographical reflections, exemplifies this strategy of ironic distancing from both mythic analogue and the language of cliché. The broken home of the title, of course, is the first of many common idioms the poem holds up for scrutiny. That that idiom might have been spoken sincerely, if euphemistically, by his parents’ generation but would hardly be used "straight" in his own social world serves to indicate both the distance from which the poet views the events he recounts, and the gulf between the social mores, and thus the public language, of the 1930s and the 1960s, for Merrill was well aware that a new vocabulary for describing social acts implies a new set of attitudes toward those facts. At the same time, the definite article again assumes the reader’s familiarity, and when this image makes its one appearance, in the last of the poem’s seven sonnets, it has clearly expanded beyond its specific reference to Merrill’s childhood to take on an emblematic quality. …

[Shetley goes on to note the idioms throughout the sonnets as well as the various puns – in the second sonnet, he points out that "Merrill’s punning etherealizes the language of his father’s profession; from the poet’s perspective the world of investments and finance seems as insubstantial as the clouds" (77) – and pauses over the concluding six lines in the fourth sonnet.] … The tonal nuances of the first line of the sestet would take a great deal of space to exhaustively unpack; what one can say briefly is that its evident mockery might be taken either way: as a ventriloquism of complacent male triumphalism or as sardonic irony; the nonchalance of the poet’s "Oh" implies both that making history is simply the natural thing for men to do, and that it’s no great accomplishment. The poet speaks from a moment in which the whole idea that history is made by great men seems increasingly questionable, and his rhyming of "history" with "story’ encourages the reader to perform the feminist dissection of "history’ into "his-story." In the final lines of the sestet Merrill obliquely returns to the subject of his own parents, seeing their "marriage on the rocks" as an instance of an archetypal situation. This archetype is handled, however, with a broad irony. "Father Time and Mother Earth" have fallen by the poet’s time to the level of advertising images, while "on the rocks," like "broken home," is a euphemism employed by a society unable to bring itself to say "divorce." It’s exactly this disinclination to confront matters directly, this way of seeing the conflict between the sexes as immemorial and irresolvable, the poet implies, that leads to scarred lives like his own. Bad language is a symptom of bad faith, a bad faith the poet’s ironic reworking of cliché is meant to expose.


Criticism Overview
Title Vernon Shetley: On "The Broken Home" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Vernon Shetley Criticism Target James Merrill
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America
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