Hans Lodeizen, a brilliant young Dutch poet, died in 1950—leaving his silhouette and a personalized copy of his first volume of verse in the hands of the twenty-four-year-old James Merrill. The two had become friends four years earlier at Amherst College; Lodeizen’s tragic death by leukemia cast a shadow across the pages of Merrill’s future work.
That Lodeizen had already left his stamp on Merrill in life becomes apparent in a letter dated 5 August 1950 , in which Merrill struggles to find the words to contain his and the world’s fresh grief. He writes to his mother:
“I can’t think of any of my friends who to such a degree was free of the traces of that interior death by which a man can truly perish . . . I learned so much from him, about music, the world and myself.” This same letter contains an early version of “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace,” a poem describing a visit to Lodeizen on his sickbed in Switzerland. By comparing this and the published version of the, we can see the poet’s impulse to imbue a senseless death with meaning. In both, death makes the speaker “cry aloud / At the old masters of disease,” but in the first version, the “old masters” kill by taunting the patient with death, while in the final version they kill by delaying death and tormenting him with life (the old masters “Would coax you still back from that starry land”). The second version argues more forcefully for the promise of restoration that death offers Lodeizen.
Even more striking than Lodeizen’s appearance in Merrill’s poetry and other writings from the 1950s is the figure he cuts in The Changing Light at Sandover, published thirty years later. In “Mirabell’s Books of Number,” Merrill alerts us to the fact that his early elegy borrows its striking final metaphor from the last line of a poem Lodeizen wrote for him: “o fate in his hand the sword.” Synthesizing the significance, Merrill writes: “And then I wrote my ‘Dedication’— / Entered, intersected by his death.” Indeed, Merrill’s fascination with Lodeizen’s silhouette (in “The Book of Ephraim” he describes it and quotes from the note Lodeizen wrote to him on its verso) may derive from his tendency to see in the absent figure a shadow of himself, or to see himself as the shadow of the absent figure: “Tough shadow that remains, / The sitter long removed to sunless shores.
Looking at the last letter Merrill wrote to Lodeizen, we can see how he transposes his own situation as a foreigner abroad in Salzburg with that of his dying friend’s in “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace”; his “folly” at staying in a city which seems at first “ugly” and then “shining and perfect” becomes “a madness” of displacement in a “toy city” of “glittering neutrality.” And Merrill’s portrayal of Lodeizen as himself is not purely out of vanity, but attempts to redeem the loss. Because the possibility that such a death was in vain is too much to bear, Merrill denies the existence of vanity in his art. What Merrill wrote of Proust (paraphrasing Dandieu) in 1946 applies equally to himself: “for, with Proust, it is when his use of metaphor asserts the absence of all but a personal reality that we sense most strongly the ‘genuineness’ of his experience.” The metaphoric potential of Lodeizen’s death overshadows its reality—it was not in vain. For Merrill, if Hans’ death was in vain, vanity becomes necessary.
Rachel Slaughter and Dolsy Smith