James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926, and
grew up in Manhattan and Southampton. He was the son of Charles Merrill,
co-founder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and his second wife,
Hellen Ingram. He began writing poems as a child, and at age sixteen,
while he was in prep school, his father had a book of them privately
printed under the title Jim's Books.
Merrill's studies at Amherst College were interrupted by service in
the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1945. Another book, The Black Swan, was privately printed in 1946
while he was still in college. Following his graduation in 1947, he
taught for a year at Bard College. His first trade book, First Poems, was published
by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951 to critical acclaim. In 1956 he used a
portion of his inheritance to found the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which
has since awarded grants to hundreds of artists and writers. Over the
next decade he published two novels, The Seraglio (1957) and The (Diblos) Notebook
(1965) as well as two books of poems, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace
(1959) and Water
Street (1962). His 1966 collection of poems, Nights and Days, won the
National Book Award and brought his work a wider audience.
He went on to earn numerous awards for his poetry, including the
Bollingen Prize for Braving
the Elements (1972), the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976), and
a second National Book Award for Mirabell (1978). In 1983, his epic poem The Changing Light at
Sandover (1982) won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
On February 6, 1995 James Merrill died from AIDS in Tucson, Arizona.
His last book, A Scattering
of Salts, was published a month later.