'A Scattering of Salts': Merrill's Temporal Innocence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • R. Sastri


Publication details

JournalTwentieth-Century Literature
DatePublished - 2004
Issue number3
Number of pages28
Pages (from-to)239-267
Original languageEnglish


In A Scattering of Salts the return of innocence "with a difference" (Poems 651) (1) is Merrill's aim and his subject. This volume's poems seek ways to combine innocence and experience, to achieve a renewal of innocence that does not deny knowledge, experience, or time. Merrill desires innocence as an openness to the possibilities of each new moment, a way to approach the present and future with potential for wonder and hope. But his is not an Adamic stance that erases the past, motivated by a will to what Emerson calls an "original relation to the universe" (3). (2) Neither is it an elegiac yearning for an idealized childhood or Milton's "native innocence" (373) prior to knowledge and guilt. (3) Rather, like Blake's, Merrill's innocence "dwells with Wisdom" (697). (4) Like Stevens in "The Auroras of Autumn," Merrill pursues innocence through confrontations with change and death. But Stevens struggles to find or imagine an innocence outside of time, "innocence/As pure principle" (361), not subject to mutability. (5) Merrill relinquishes desire for purity or transcendence and invents a contingent innocence that arises in time and is subject to change. (6) It is a shifting, dynamic balance of contraries, an ongoing poetic creation that does not reconcile opposites into harmonious simplicity. (7) Its aspects of youth and age, hope and dread, imagination and knowledge "dissolve/And meet in astounding images of order" (Merrill, Poems 11), the balance between opposing terms constantly changing. A Scattering of Salts invents a new figure for this complex innocence: a gem or crystal seen in its temporal, material process of becoming, a "bright alternation" ...

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