The Broken Home

James Merrill


James Merrill

Nationality: American

James Merrill was an American poet and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1977.

His Divine Comedies won the Pulitzer Prize.

The poem, ‘The Broken Home’, is the story of the poet’s broken home itself. Merrill delves deep into the past thinking about his own house, his parent’s divorce, and the effect it had on his life. Although Merrill’s work has been labeled by some critics to be difficult we see that the readers easily follow his poetry. The poetic fashion of the 1970s was confessional poetry. As Merrill was deeply influenced by this poetic technique it can be seen in his poetry.

‘The Broken Home’ is one of Merrill’s deeply insightful poem in which he makes use of 7 different types of sonnets to bring home the importance and meaning of family in a lonely child’s life. You can read the poem in full here.

The Broken Home by James Merrill 

The Broken Home Analysis

First Sonnet

The first sonnet is unrhymed in which the poet places himself outside the action and is a mere observer.  While crossing the street to his apartment he looked at the building and in one of the windows, he saw a child standing with his parents. And to the poet it was as if this was the true meaning of life. They were presenting such a perfect, homely picture which was in sharp contrast to his own fruitless, meaningless existence. This prompts the poet to question the value of his own life. By using some beautiful metaphors and with the help of a few of his powerful imagery for example; ‘Gleaming like fruit, with evening’s mild gold leaf’, the poet talks about the family standing in the window. And then comparing it to his own lonely life, and describing his own room, he says ‘Sunless, cooler_ a brimming Saucer of wax_ marbly and dim.’ This powerful play of words brings home to the reader the lonely and fruitless life that the poet has led.


Second Sonnet

The second sonnet is written in pentameters. Here the poet moves into the autobiographical territory. The father is not the angry figure of the earlier poems, but Charles Merrill is an investor of the share market. According to Judith Moffet, the clear, sane and civilized voice of this sonnet attracts the reader’s attention. In this sonnet, Merrill registered the regret of a son whose father’s soul was obstructed by two consuming factors, sex and business. Time had been money for his father but when his father died at the age of seventy, money was not time. This means when you are earning money, you give all your time to earn money and there’s little time for your family, now when its time to die money cannot bring back the time and you eventually die leaving behind everything.


Third Sonnet

This third sonnet of ‘The Broken Home’ is in free verse and opens out in a historical scene which is the backdrop of the break-up between his parents. Merrill makes use of the metaphor ‘on the rocks’ and we come to know that in it lies the colloquial truth about the many differences in a worldly marriage. In this sonnet, Merrill says that in his childhood days, a famous act by some women was that they would accompany a man and then they would demand that they should give them the vote. But in return, he would tell them adamantly that a woman’s place was only at home and they should go back to that. In the last lines of this sonnet, Merrill says that this battle for equality between the opposite sexes has been going on for a long time. He sees his own parents’ divorce as a result of this battle between the male and female principles.


Fourth Sonnet

The fourth sonnet is written in a rhymed tetrameter and moves from the archetypal world to the private world of childhood. In one of the interviews to the Paris Review’ Merrill recounted that the incident described in the fourth sonnet was the subject matter of a poem he wrote at the age of eight. In this sonnet, the poet goes back in his childhood memories again. He talks about the time when as a young child he was led by his dog to his mother’s bed-chamber. His mother was in bed and sleeping. But right at that moment she opened her eyes, got up and tried to grasp him. But the poet fled away in terror. We see that this sonnet is full of sexual images and mythical illusions, like his mother lying with her hair spread out (like Medusa).


Fifth Sonnet

The fifth sonnet has been written in free verse. It presents the painful memories of an overheard conversation between his parents followed by a series of alchemical images and a resolution of sorts. The poet learns that none of his parents are to be blamed for their broken home ‘who love each other still’, they are now “cool in the grave-yard of good and evil/They are even so to be honoured and obeyed. Echoes of this line are found in the lines ‘Small wonder we honour our father and our mother even when we can’t obey them”. The poet says that even though you do not agree with your parents but you still obey and honour them. He had felt that when his parents decided to separate they were more passionate but now with the passing of time they were both dead and in their graves.


Sixth Sonnet

The sixth sonnet has been written in slant rhymes. In this sonnet, we see the poet using the word ‘invert’. This word is used to describe a homosexual. The poet acknowledges a worldly disengagement when he says” I rarely buy a newspaper or vote” and yet he insists” I trust that I am no less times child than some/ who on the heath impersonate Poor Tom. Nor does the poet try to keep a garden instead he grows a single avocado but lets it wither and die. So the sixth sonnet can be read both as admission and affirmation. Here the poet admits that he has been completely cut-off from the world and had stopped socializing. The poet simply refuses to be like his father who although being active and competitive, never gave proper time and attention to his family.


Seventh Sonnet

The final sonnet has been written in the Petrarchan style. In this last sonnet of the poem, the poet writes” Do I conclude that my life has been less a flight from the Broken Home than a cunning role model of it. This means that the poet’s broken home had affected his life and he had always tried to escape from it. But he realizes that the life he is leading now is just as lonely and childless as it used to be when his parents had a break-up. Once again he goes back in time, roaming about the house with his dog. But the house had become more like a boarding-school, where one might learn a lot but never develop a feeling of belonging.

So, we see that Merrill is not imposing anything on us but has taken out an incident from his life and related it to us.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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