Thomas Merton's Poetics of Self-Dissolution - Sonia Petisco Martínez - E-Book

Thomas Merton's Poetics of Self-Dissolution E-Book

Sonia Petisco Martínez

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This book includes a collection of essays on the poetry of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), one of the most relevant spiritual masters of the twentieth century. These scholarly inquiries are all glimpses which accurately represent his poetics of dissolution?the dissolution of the old corrupt world in favour of an apocalyptic vision of a new world.

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Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans

DirectoraCarme Manuel


Sonia Petisco

Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans

Departament de Filologia Anglesa i AlemanyaUniversitat de València

Thomas Merton’s Poetics of Self-Dissolution

© Sonia Petisco Martínez

1a edición de 2016

Reservados todos los derechos

Prohibida su reproducción total o parcial

ISBN: 978-84-9134-180-2

Imagen de la portada: Francisco Petisco, Sin título (2010)

Diseño de la cubierta: Celso Hernández de la Figuera

Publicacions de la Universitat de València

[email protected]

To Manuel, Manu, to whom this book belongs

See! See!My love is darkness!

Only in the VoidAre all ways one:

Only in the nightAre all the lostFound.

In my ending is my meaning.

Thomas Merton, “The Night of Destiny”


FOREWORD by Peter Ellis




Thomas Merton’s Poetic Evolution from World’s Denial to an Experience of Universal Love


“O Sweet Escape! O Smiling Flight!”:Commentaries on a Selection of Poems by Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton’s Antipoetry:A Revolution in Language and Thought


Silence as the Path to Joy in the Poetry of Thomas Merton and T.S. Eliot


Recovering Our Innocence:The Influence of William Blake on the Poetry of Thomas Merton


Thomas Merton’s World Discourse:Economic Globalization vs Religious Universality


Translation as Recreation:The Case of Thomas Merton


Sophia, the Unknown, the Dark, the Nameless:Questioning the Male-Female Dichotomy through Thomas Merton’s Poetry



Foreword by Peter Ellis

Theology scholars have entry to the widest of fields of any discipline and see before them the largest number of paths to follow. The language they use offers so many different registers of meaning and so many opportunities for truthfully moving from one to the other that they often find themselves the surprised beneficiaries of hitherto unknown combinations of words and ideas. Many paths lead them to where others are working or have been before them. But it is also possible to take paths that are entirely new, that perhaps are marking out the first clearings in unknown forests or establishing possible meeting places in lonely unexplored landscapes. This volume presents the work of one such scholar of the new, Sonia Petisco, who has followed her own distinct path for over a decade. Her guiding light here is the Catholic monk Thomas Merton who died in 1968 and the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year. Merton’s life was paradigmatic of the breakdowns of the twentieth century, and, fortunately for us, the changes he experienced in his thoughts and acts were recorded by him in an early autobiography, almost daily journal entries, letters and books. They record his flight from a world of cruelty, individual isolation and war to the age-old practice of monasticism as lived out in the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky, USA. Gradually over the years Merton reconnected with the world and became one of the great counter-cultural protest voices of the 1960s. Part of his increasing commitment to and enmeshment in the world was his writing of poetry which more and more pushed out at the boundaries of form as he matured.

Scholars in theology are also the least likely to hide their work behind the façade of objective, hands off, empirical research and the author of the essays in this book does not hide her self from the reader. This does not mean that we know about her life as we do about Merton’s, but, as with Merton, we gain an intimate knowledge of her ways of thinking and feeling and are able to observe them in these pages as they develop, nourished by and derived from the new philosophies of today, and driven on by current political realities. Hers is a philosophy that is as engaged as Sartre’s but in a rather different way. It is concerned with working out from lived experience exactly what the deictic personal pronouns – you, I and we – mean in the light of radical psychological and sociological research. This research is not simply reacting to and critiquing the tired and damaging norms of western thought but goes beyond them to new lands of new things in the true spirit of Hegel. Petisco’s contribution to this research is closely involved with a language that is open to “the other” – whether radically different others or simply our neighbours – and which exposes and goes beyond the gender divide embedded in its very structure. These essays are concerned with both these areas of self and gender in their discussion of language, and work through them in a spirit of going– beyond not just protesting–at to expose in her words “the collective illusions of our separateness in our societies and languages.”

Merton’s concerns with violence and war, with racism, with cruelty went far beyond the protests of his day because he saw very clearly from his background of daily worship in the monastery that anyone looking at the world had to ask deeper and more challenging questions. As he is quoted in one of the essays in this book: “A society that kills real men in order to deliver itself from the phantasm of a paranoid delusion is already possessed by the demon of destructiveness because it has made itself incapable of love.” Merton’s conclusion that the world is driven by insane reasoning, by obvious contradictions that seem to arouse no concern, and is fueled by desires for vengeance on other people who are different, resonates with greater power every year as we continue to amass weapons, despoil the planet and associate our over–consumption with our rights as free individuals. It is this that informs these essays, lies behind them and gives them their depth and meaning. Their author’s reaction to our world condition is not simply to point out its lies, as Merton did, but to follow him in seeking for seeds of hope, newness and change. She finds these in part in a search for ways to recast and revitalize language and to then go further and to put forward new interpretations which come from the freedom won by bringing words back to life. The essays illustrate the process.

Like Merton, Petisco’s use of language and of present–day philosophy is constantly measured against the benchmarks of contemplation, silence and a focus on the mysterious central presence of the Trinity, benchmarks that Merton did so much to reestablish in western thought in the twentieth century. The essays find fertile cross references between ideas, particularly as expressed in poetry. They explore Merton’s poems themselves, searching out inner meanings and clarifying their references. She also looks at other poets, particularly T.S. Eliot and William Blake, and illuminates the arguments for and against translation in an essay that demonstrates her ability to go beyond explanation to open up new ideas. Here she brings poetry back to a central position in language invoking the idea of a “field of common reason” where the words of the poem take us beyond author or translator. We live surrounded by words deriving from power and control that are devoid of depth and humanity. We flourish with words that are subtle and poetic, that bring us together with other people and that reconcile our exterior and interior divisions. It is most inspiring to follow arguments and discussions that are not simply scholarly enquiry but are dedicated to changing the damaged and damaging thought structures of the modern world itself.


What is man, that you make so much of himAnd that you set your heart on him,Visit him every morningAnd test him every moment?

Job 7:17

Some contemporary thinkers have expressed their uneasiness about the absolute absence of new ideas to change the world. Even if there are dispersed tendencies and incipient movements, we still find ourselves trapped within the current complexity and do not know how to respond when confronted with it.

One of the main merits of Thomas Merton’s literary project is that it can greatly contribute to untie the knots and dilemmas of personal and social conflicts by liberating us from the dream of fictitious individualism and, therefore, untapping possibilities for an authentic communal experience rooted in “the hidden ground of love.”1 The relevance of his message has been recently underlined by Pope Francis in his address to the Congress of the United States, when he mentions Thomas Merton, together with three other American – Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King –, and refers to him as “a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”2

This book aims to bring together a series of critical essays on Thomas Merton’s poetry, which clearly shows how the quest for self–detachment and mystical communion with the divine is indeed at the center of Merton’s spirituality and political concerns. Together with a chronology of Merton’s life and works and two interviews with Dr George Kilcourse and Paul Quenon, ocso, the volume contains some of the most relevant papers I have delivered in different national and international conferences both in Spain and in the UK over more than a decade. They have all been published in specialized journals relating to the fields of Religious Studies, Comparative Literature, and Translation and they can be considered as vivid testimonies to Merton’s perception of human egocentrism as the main root of all international confrontations and social violence:

We live in an age of bad dreams, in which the scientist and engineer possess the power to give external form to the phantasms of man’s unconscious. The bright weapons that sing in the atmosphere, ready to pulverize the cities of the world, are the dreams of giants without a center […] One is permitted to wish their dreams had been less sordid.3

My tenet is that the entire body of Thomas Merton’s poetry can be thought of as a poetics of dissolution: the dissolution of the old corrupt world full of pointless slaughters in favour of an apocalyptic vision of a new world; abstract categorizations of the supernatural giving way to a more direct, humanized and intimate experience of the sacred at home in the world; and above all, a fading away of the false self in the light of the true self in Christ: “O flaming Heart/unseen and unimagined in this wilderness,/You, You alone are real, and here I’ve found You.” Indeed, Merton has been regarded as a prophet and poet of transformation, and his transformative metaphors may help us celebrate the best and most universal of our human civilization’s achievements by bringing forth the most regenerative radiance from deep inside the heart of contemplation.

Through the eight chapters in which this book has been divided, Merton invites us to live a contemplative life. Such contemplation is “the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life,”4 “a listening in silence, an expectancy,”5 “a simple intuition of the truth” (simplex intuitus veritatis),6 and above all the capacity to see beyond the idols and masks of the ego into the “mystery in which God reveals Himself to us at the very center of our own most intimate self.”7 As he beautifully wrote:

At the center of our being is a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lies, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship.8

Greatly influenced in his mysticism by the apophatic theology found in such people as Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo–Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, or John of the Cross, Merton claimed that God is me and that I am God, and that no word or image can contain God or me. In other words, God is neither a “what” nor a “thing,” it is not a being among other beings, but a pure “Who” or a pure “I” that cannot be apprehended by conceptualization but must be experienced directly in the darkness where God is “everything and nothing,” and where “I” am “everybody” and “nobody.” Throughout Merton’s poetic corpus, we are witness to his own experience of the dark night of the soul, characterized by strong inner contradictions:

This afternoon, let me

Be a sad person. Am I not

Permitted (like other men)

To be sick of myself? [… ]

Do not forbid me (once again) to be

Angry, bitter, disillusioned,

Wishing I could die.9

If there is something we can learn from Merton it is that I am not the one I think I am. On the contrary, he helps us understand that – like the prophet Jonas – I live in the belly of a paradox, that there is not only “one” but at least “two” within myself, and that my real person carries an eternal war between what I am supposed to be and what I really am. This is a perpetual agony, a war without end which – in the case of Merton – was manifested in a ferocious struggle between his religious call to the contemplative life and his unquestionable vocation to become a writer. Nevertheless, he did not hide this contradiction but learnt to breathe through his wound, accepting his destiny as one of the greatest poet–prophets of the twentieth century, whose word fiercely denounces all the horrors of human history but also sets up a new beginning through art and symbolic imagination.10 As he himself recognizes in one of his literary essays:

All really valid poetry (poetry that is fully alive and asserts its reality by its power to generate imaginative life) is a kind of recovery of paradise [… ] Here, the world gets another chance. Here man, here the reader discovers himself getting another start in life, in hope, in imagination, and why? Hard to say, but probably because the language itself is getting another chance, through the innocence, the teaching, the good faith, the honest senses of the workman poet.11

Moved by a deep poetic inspiration, Merton creates a new geography, the geography of Lograire,12 the geography of the Living Word which puts into question all the false political, scientific and technological discourses which have contributed to create the collective fiction we are living in. And he himself becomes “his own geography [… ] his own wild bird, with God in the center/his own wide field which nobody owns,/his own pattern, surrounding the Spirit/by which he is himself surrounded:/for the free man’s road has neither beginning nor end.”13 Let us accompany him in this endless path towards real communion with the divine beyond the limits of our own constrained subjectivities. Let us be awakened to the paradise consciousness, that child mind which is “the only mind worth having.”14

We live in the things we love and the things we expect. I do hope that the compassionate but somehow incisive message of Thomas Merton, the silent rumour of his poetic voice, can be heard and expanded worldwide during his Centenary Year15 so that we can get rid of “the overlying layer of duplicity that is not ourselves”16 and recover our native nakedness, that point of nothingness where we become the Incarnate Word, the dance of the Lord in emptiness.

I would like to conclude this introduction by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to my thesis supervisor, Dr Fernando Beltrán Llavador (University of Salamanca), who enthusiastically encouraged me to start this project, providing great ideas to give shape to this book and revising its final version; my sincerest acknowledgements to Peter Ellis (archaeologist and co–editor of Merton’s centenary volume Universal Vision), Fiona Gardner (Senior Lecturer at Bath Spa University and Committee Member of the TMS of Great Britain and Ireland), Stephen Dunhill (retired teacher and current co–editor of The Merton Journal), and Manuel Poggio Capote (Official Chronicler of Santa Cruz de La Palma and editor of Cartas Diferentes Journal) for their generosity in reading and polishing the manuscript of this book, adapting it to conventional editing guidelines and making its English language sound more felicitous. My warmest thanks to Dr Paul Pearson (Director of the Thomas Merton Center, Bellarmine University, Kentucky, USA), whose constant support and mediation has favoured the publication of this collection; and to Brother Paul Quenon (Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky, USA) and Dr George Kilcourse (Bellarmine University, Kentucky, USA) for their kind offer to be interviewed and share their thorough knowledge and understanding of Merton’s poetic voice. Finally, I would like to pay homage to my parents, whose sparkling creative streak has always taught me that a person should be independent, original, and should not “run with the herd.”17 Thank you for their neverending patience and trust in my work.

1 Merton used this phrase in a letter to Amiya Chakravarty, 13 April, 1967. “And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen [… ] we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in the hidden ground of love for which there can be no explanations.” The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (London: Collins Flame, 1990), p. 115.

2 We are referring to the speech delivered by Pope Francis to the American Congress on 23 September, 2015. In his talk, the pontiff describes Merton as a notable American, a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and who still remains a source of spiritual inspiration, a guide for many people. He even quotes a passage from Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self–contradictory hungers.” See

3 “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants,” in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Direction, 1977), p. 374.

4 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 1.

5 Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1969), p. 67.

6 Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace Jonavovich, 1951), p. 133.

7 Thomas Merton, The New Man (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), p. 11.

8 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968), p. 158.

9The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977), pp. 231–232. All the citations in this book have been used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

10 In his essay “Poetry and Contemplation: A Reappraisal,” Merton emphasises the intimate relationship between the contemplative and the writing vocation: “In the true Christian poet we find it hard to distinguish between the inspiration of the prophet and mystic and the purely poetic enthusiasm of great artistic genius.” The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1985), p. 344.

11 “Louis Zukofsky: the Paradise Ear” (1967), in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, op. cit., p. 128.

12 Paul M. Pearson, The Geography of Lograire: Thomas Merton’s Final Prophetic Vision, in Thomas Merton: Poet, Monk, Prophet, Proceedings of the II Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Great Britain: Three Peaks Press, 1998).

13The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, op. cit., p. 245.

14 See Fiona Gardner, The Only Mind Worth Having: Thomas Merton and the Child Mind (Eugene: Oregon Wipf & Stock, 2015).

15 A full listing of all the books published around this Centenary year can be found listed on the Centenary website at: These are some of the titles published in Spain: Thomas Merton, “La voz secreta”: reflexiones sobre mi obra en oriente y occidente, edited and translated by Fernando Beltrán Llavador from “Honorable Reader”: Reflections on My Work (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2015); Fernando Beltrán Llavador, Thomas Merton: el verdadero viaje (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2015); James Finley, El palacio del vacío de Thomas Merton, edited and translated by Fernando Beltrán Llavador from Merton’s Palace of Nowhere (Santander: Sal Terrae, 2014); Ramón Cao Martínez, Ocultarse en una hoguera: Thomas Merton a través de sus diarios (Ourense, Galicia: Eurisaces Editora, 2015); María Luisa López Laguna, rcm, Thomas Merton: maestro y amigo (Madrid: Edibesa, 2015); Thomas Merton, Oh corazón ardiente: poemas de amor y de disidencia, edited and translated by Sonia Petisco (Madrid: Trotta, 2015); Diccionario de Thomas Merton, translation of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, ed. William Shannon, Christine M. Bochen and Patrick O’Connell, under the supervision of Francisco Rafael de Pascual, ocso (Bilbao: Editorial Mensajero, 2015).

16Thomas Merton on St. Bernard (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1970), p. 119.

17 Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1978), p. 11.

A Chronologyof Thomas Merton’s Life & Publications1

1915 - 31 January - born at Prades, France, son of Owen Merton (artist from New Zealand) and of Ruth Jenkins (artist from USA)

1916 - moved to USA, lived at Douglaston, L.I. (with his mother’s family)

1921 - his mother dies - from cancer

1922 - in Bermuda with his father who went there to paint

1925 - to France with his father, lived at St. Antonin

1926 - entered Lycée Ingres, Montauban, France

1928 - to England - Ripley Court school, then to Oakham (1929)

1931 - his father dies of a brain tumor

1932 - at Oakham School he acquired a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge

1933 - visited Italy, spent summer in USA, entered Cambridge in the fall - study of modern languages (French and Italian)

1934 - left Cambridge and returned to USA

1935 - entered Columbia University

1937 - at Columbia - editor of the 1937 Yearbook and art editor of The Columbia Jester

1938 - graduated from Columbia, began work on M.A.

1938 - 16 November - received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church

1940 - 1941 - taught English at St. Bonaventure College

1941 - 10 December - entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Trappist, Kentucky.

[Note: 31 January, 1915 to 10 December, 1941– nearly 27 years before entering monastery. Dies on 10 December, 1968 - the 27th anniversary of his entering Gethsemani.]

1944 - 19 March - made simple vows, published Thirty Poems

1946 - A Man in the Divided Sea

1947 - 19 March - solemn vows, published Exile Ends in Glory

1948 - Publication of best–seller autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain and What Are These Wounds?

1949 - 26 May - ordained priest; Seeds of Contemplation; The Tears of the Blind Lions; The Waters of Siloe

1951 - 1955 - Master of Scholastics (students for priesthood)

1951 - The Ascent to Truth

1953 - The Sign of Jonas; Bread in the Wilderness

1954 - The Last of the Fathers

1955 - No Man is an Island

1955 - 1965 - Master of Novices

1956 - The Living Bread

1957 - The Silent Life; The Strange Islands

1958 - Thoughts in Solitude

1959 - The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton; Selected Poems

1960 - Disputed Questions; The Wisdom of the Desert

1961 - The New Man; The Behavior of Titans

1961 - Emblems of a Season of Fury; Life and Holiness

1964 - Seeds of Destruction

1965 - Gandhi on Non–Violence; The Way of Chuang Tzu; Seasons of Celebration

1965 - 1968 - lived as a hermit on the grounds of the monastery

1966 - Raids on the Unspeakable; Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

1967 - Mystics and Zen Masters

1968 - Monks Pond; Cables to the Ace; Faith and Violence; Zen and the Birds of Appetite

1968 - 10 December - died at Bangkok, Thailand, where he had spoken at a meeting of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians.

Posthumous Publications:

1969 - My Argument with the Gestapo; Contemplative Prayer; The Geography of Lograire

1971 - Contemplation in a World of Action

1973 - The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton; He is Risen

1976 - Ishi Means Man

1977 - The Monastic Journey; The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

1979 - Love and Living

1980 - The Non–Violent Alternative

1981 - The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton; Day of a Stranger, Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton (reprinted in 1989 under title “Honorable Reader“: Reflections on My Work)

1982 - Woods, Shore and Desert: A Notebook, May 1968

1985 - The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (Letters, 1)

1988 - A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964–1965; Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals and Letters

1989 - The Road to Joy: Letter to New and Old Friends (Letters, II)

1990 - The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction (Letters, III)

1993 - The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers (Letters, IV)

1994 - Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis (Letters, V)

1995 - Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation (Journals, I: 1939–1941)

1996 - Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer (Journals, II: 1941–1952); A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Journals, III: 1952–1960); Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Journals, IV: 1960–1963)

1997 - Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage (Journals, V: 1963– 1965); Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom (Journals VI: 1966–1967)

1998 - The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey (Journals VII: 1967–1968)

1999 - The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals

2001 - Dialogues with Silence

2003 - The Inner Experience. Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers

2004 - Peace in a Post–Christian Era

2005 - In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton; Cassian and the Fathers

2006 - The Cold War Letters; Pre–Benedictine Monasticism

2008 - Introduction to Christian Mysticism; A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection

2009 - The Rule of St. Benedict. Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine De Hueck Doherty

2010 - Monastic Observances

2012 - The Life of the Vows

2014 - Thoughts in Solitude and New Seeds of Contemplation - audio books; Seven Storey Mountain, Centenary Edition

2015 - Ishi Means Man; What Are These Wounds; Exiles Ends in Glory

1 Source: “Merton Center web site: Used with permission.”

Chapter 1

Thomas Merton’s Poetic Evolutionfrom World’s Denial to an Experience of Universal Love1

Geography comes to an endCompass has lost all earthly northHorizons have no meaningNor roads an explanation.2

These intriguing apocalyptic lines from Merton’s Early Poems (1940-1942) could well summarise his vision of the secular world at the time he entered the monastery of Gethsemani in 1941. They depict a kind of waste land, a barren scenery where people have lost the capacity to interpret their own existence, and stand as a good testimony of the need to give a new shape to experience.

It is precisely this urgency for creating new maps, new cartographies, new dwellings, and most particularly, for a radical transformation of human consciousness that is the main force which might have led Merton to choose the silent life and write a very fertile poetic work by means of which he tried to give birth to a novel geography: the geography of the Spirit.

The poet meditates, sings, suffers and re-creates the world from his paradisus claustralis, from the pristine and ineffable void of his innermost ground of being. After many years of inner conflict between his two apparently contradictory vocations – the monastic and the artistic – he finally renders a truly significant poetry which is a faithful expression of his spiritual evolution from solitude to solidarity, from contemptus mundi to universal love.

During the 40s, Merton published several books of poems; apart from the already mentioned Early Poems, he also wrote Thirty Poems (1944), A Man in the Divided Sea (1946), Figures for an Apocalypse (1947) or The Tears of the Blind Lions (1949). Most of them show the clear division he made between the sacred and the profane world, between silence and writing, between the religious and the aesthetic, between contemplation and action. His early poems trace back his years as student in Oakham School (England) and his stay at Greenwich Village. Together with others composed later on, they reflect the poet’s critical attitude against the shadows and false values prevailing in Western culture:

Body is truth, truth is body. Fat is all

We grow on earth, or all we breed to grow […]

Beauty is troops, troops beauty. Death is all

We grow on earth, or all we breed to grow.3

we read in his poem “The Philosophers,” an obvious reference to John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”4 In the midst of this materialistic and violent context, however, the poet compares himself with a hidden seed, “buried in the earth/waiting for the Easter rains/to drench me in their mirth/and crown my seedtime with some sap and growth.” Merton’s monastery could be seen as the chosen place for this “burial” and this “waiting” for the vivifying waters of solitude and silence. It was considered by the poet as a more authentic space than the city which he regarded as “a stubborn and fabricated dream,”5 a world of mechanical fictions in which people are imprisoned in “the monkey-houses of their office-buildings and apartments,”6 living in a womb of collective illusion where freedom remains abortive and where distraction – the greatest of our miseries – helps people elude their true human task: contemplation understood as “the fullness of the Christ life in the soul.”7

In his Early Poems, Merton strongly criticizes this false “divertissement” with which the city cunningly seduces its servants: “Oh lock us in the safe jails of thy movies!/Confine us to the semiprivate wards and white asylum/Of the unbearable cocktail parties, O New York!”8 As opposed to this empty and surrogate happiness that the urban life offers, his verses praise the unspoilt nature, where “the simple grapefruit in the grove/shines like the face of childish love/and sunflowers lean toward the south with the confidence of early youth.”9 Faithful to the commands of his own destiny, Merton ended up living in the privileged natural setting of Our Lady of Gethsemani and withdrawing from the more active concerns of a wordly life, in order to devote himself completely to repentance, conversion, renunciation and prayer.10 Like the sunflower seeking the sunlight, the poet would direct his life toward the sun of Christ, his Beloved. The tireless search for complete union with him became one of the main themes of his early poetic production: “Oh flaming Heart,/Unseen and unimagined in this wilderness,/You, You alone are real, and here I’ve found you”11 he wrote in one of the last poems of this collection.

In his next volume of poetry, Thirty Poems (1944) – mainly written during his stay as English teacher in St. Bonaventure University, but also during the first years of his novitiate – the criticism of the urban life goes into a secondary plane and it is replaced by a direct attack of a world full of wars and death in compositions such as “Lent in a Year of War” (on the Civil American War), “In memory of the Spanish Poet Federico García Lorca”(on the Spanish Civil War), “For my Brother: Reported missing in action, 1943” or “The Night Train” (on the disasters of the Second World War).12 Making use of clever comparisons, personifications, striking metaphors and exaggerations, they all denounce the barbarism which was isolating Europe and its cities, as well as the material destruction of its culture and art:

Cities that stood, by day, as gay as lancers

Are lost in the night, like old men dying

At a point where polished rails branch off forever

The steels lament, like crazy ladies.

We wake, and weep the deaths of cathedrals

That we have never seen,

Because we hear the jugulars of the country

Fly in the wind, and vanish with a cry.13

In this night of compulsion and massacre, Merton invites the soldiers who take part in the war to be aware of the sun, once more identified with Christ: “Here is the hay-colored sun, our marvellous cousin,/walking in the barley,/Turning the harrowed earth to growing bread,/and splicing the sweet, wounded wine./Lift up your hitch-hiking heads/and no more fear the fever,/you fugitives, and sleepers in the fields,/Here is the hay-colored sun.”14

To Christ and the Holy Communion he is also going to devote the major part of the poems he wrote in the monastery such as “The Trappist Abbey: Matins,” “The Holy Sacrament of the Altar,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Flight to Egypt,” or “The Holy Child’s Song.” Merton speaks of Him as “our holy stranger” and “bright heaven’s open door,” that is to say, “the “shewing,” the revelation, the door of light, the Light itself”15 which is incarnated everywhere and becomes a source of healing and redemption: “I shall transform all deserts into garden-ground:/[…] and I will come and be your noon-day sun,/and make your shadows palaces of moving light.”16

The dichotomy between world-God, city-monastery, solitude-solidarity continues to be present in A Man in a Divided Sea and Figures for an Apocalypse, collections of poems written before and after entering Gethsemani which clearly reflect his firm decision to begin a journey from the unreal city (London, New York) to what he thought to be the paradisiacal city, the Trappist community.17 As it has been pointed out, this trip was considered by the poet not as evasion but as a way of retreating into his own inner truth to find the Christ within.18 Overwhelmed by a post-war society ruled by false democracy and threatened by massive destruction, he writes:

Time, time to go to the terminal

And make the escaping train

With eyes as bright as palaces

And thoughts like nightingales.

It is the hour to fly without passports

From Juda to the mountains,

And hide while cities turn to butter

For fear of the secret bomb.

We’ll arm for our own invisible battle

In the wells of the pathless wood.19

Here the symbol of the nightingale could be identified with the poet himself, the prophet or the mystic who remains faithful to its own vocation: that of being the singer of Truth.20 This prophet must abandon the city (the world of conventional knowledge) and climb the mountain (mirror of the divine order), making a spiritual voyage towards its peak, always regarded as the place of mystical union. The dense woods he must cross during the ascent contribute to this darkness which precedes the revelation of divine light to the people whose eyes are open to see it, and their unknown paths seem to be the only possible shelter of more genuine voices.

Voices such as the ones of the Desert Fathers, who also abandoned their previous ways of life and retired to the deserts of Egypt or Palestine, or the mountains of Syria, and to whom Merton devoted several poems such as “St. Jerome” or “St. Paul the Hermit.” In these compositions the monk praises the ascetic and contemplative life of these solitaries whose inner and spiritual journey is “far more crucial and infinitely more important than any journey to the moon.”21 Men who left a world that divided them from themselves following the example of the great people of the Old and New Testament monachism (Abraham, Moises, Elias, Saint John the Baptist, the apostles and the Jerusalem primitive community), great men who gave themselves completely to the love of God, loyal to San Basilio’s saying that the person who loves God abandons everything and goes into solitude with God:

Alone, alone

Sitting in the sunny den-door

Under that date-tree,

Wounded from head to foot by His most isolated Trinity

Asking no more questions

Forgetting how to spell the thought of scrutiny

And wanting no secret

You died to the world of concept

Upon the cross of your humility.22

Verse by verse, line by line, Merton’s poetry aspires to contemplate the nakedness beyond any ideology or dogma, in order to reach a deeper wisdom, the wisdom of the divine within man, that is to say, a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs, an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality, as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ. As the Desert Fathers, he is going to desire more and more solitude in order to strike out fearlessly into the mystery of life, a territory which does not belong to us but by which we will remain eternally seduced.

His next book of poems, The Tears of the Blind Lions (1949), expresses the need of having a fruitful interior life of thought and love in the midst of a noisy world full of “lighted beasts” and threatened by the Cold War. It is a poetry characterized by a more direct style, concise and vigourous, with a less lush imagery and an increase in the use of the first person, and it shows more clearly than ever before the Agustinian polarity Merton saw between the earthly city (the Babilon of Louisville), where “the windows shiver with business,” and the Sion of Gethsemani, a dwelling of vision “whose heights have windows finer than the firmament.”23 Within the context of his own monastic community, which at that time was mainly characterized by a superficial and external religiosity based on abstract ideals and self-complacency, this work reflects how Merton tried to strengthen his contemplative vocation and how he retired more frequently to a kind of shelter in the woods whenever the busy monastic schedule allowed him to do it. Over there he would write:

Silence is louder than a cyclone

In the rude door, my shelter

[…] I eat my air alone

With pure and solitary songs

While others sit in conference

[…] I no longer see their speech

And they no longer know my theatre.24

Merton becomes an exile in the far end of solitude, living as a listener and praying for a world which is tumbling down, “for a land without prayer.”25 Nevertheless, this dualism between the sacred and the profane sphere present in The Tears… would be partially overcome in The Strange Islands