Species of the Sun's Making: Reading Light, Proust to Merrill

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation explores the work of the American poet James Merrill, including his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, alongside his reading of Marcel Proust's epic novel In Search of Lost Time. Both Merrill and Proust write with an intense focus on transitory visual phenomena, particularly focused on the dynamics of light and color that depict subjectivity. I analyze Proust's "creative readings" of paintings as imaginative spaces, through which he projects additional layers of color and context into his narrative and characterizations. Proust's process of in-depth ekphrasis with fine art, from Giotto to Picasso, allows in Derek Attridge's words, a conceptualization of the "other" to emerge. For Proust this "other" is the silent but vivid presence he calls "the color of time." From golden words to blue memories, the "color of time" illuminates the composition of Proust's own text. In contrast to theorists like Jesse Matz, who caution against analogies between the sister arts, I argue the relationship between art and writing that Proust suggests is rich and evocative precisely because it necessitates translation between mediums. James Merrill saw a similar connection when he wrote, in his Amherst honors thesis on "Proust and Impressionism," that Proust's use of metaphor is like the Neo-Impressionist "third-color" that emerges from contrasting points and creates another spectacle, another reality only within "the beholder's eye." Merrill would go on to use this understanding of metaphor in his own writing. This dissertation engages Merrill's process as the beholder reading Proust over the course of his lifetime. To argue Proust's monumental shaping power within Merrill's construction of metaphor, illusion, and vision in general, I make use of archival materials including Merrill's honors thesis on Proust; Merrill's poem "For Proust," and a previously unpublished poem "For Proust, II." I also closely read Merrill's marginalia in his copy of Remembrance of Things Past. In a project about translation, I theorize Merrill gains from Proust a sense of reading as a translation of the spirit into art and light as the predominant metaphor for that spiritualizing of matter among readers, which Merrill then incorporates in his own Changing Light. Finally, in the end I read Merrill's work with science as a similar mode to Proust's ekphrasis of fine art, as an exploration of the "other" that spurs creativity.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Steven Meyer

Committee Members

Guinn Batten, Elizabeth Childs, Beata Grant, William McKelvy, Vincent Sherry


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K79W0CFC

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