"The Summer People" offers an historical social-political-economic truth, one experienced by the poet, who by virtue of his frequent absences from 107 Water Street before and after writing his ballad, remained one of the "summer people." Like Nora, who argues bootlessly that "there have been winters / We stayed here," which "makes us year-round people," Merrill, too, one imagines, remained one of the summer people. Nor had he experienced directly the "once upon a time" Stonington that he describes at the beginning of his poem, since the 1938 hurricane and the settling in the disease that would denude the town of elms had preceded Merrill’s discovery of Stonington. But the four principals of his poem are real, as he confirms in an interview published in the literary journal Shenandoah in 1968. In this "substitute from a novel," four local characters-the Robert, Isabel, Eleanor, and Grace to whom he dedicated Water Street-are the Andrew, Jane, Nora, and Margaret of "The Summer People." Present, as well, is the Azorean, who from the periphery shadows the lives of these "summer people." With "forebears [who] had manned whalers," these Portuguese now live largely-in the time of Merrill’s narrative-on Gold Street. Among them are Manuel the grocer, whose son Joey wins a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology "to study cybernetics / and flute"-something old, something new.
The Azoreans are among the town’s permanent residents, those who do not leave Stonington for the winter, and as such are to be distinguished from the "summer people," whose off-season designation has more to do with their season-inflected way of thinking than with where, during any given year, they happen to spend the off-season. Merrill’s poem does not, naturally focus on Azoreans; yet their presence constitutes the large fact against which the end-of-an-era ambiance of the ballad plays itself out. For the poem sings sadly of the passing of the "summer people" (and their gracious way of life, of course), whose breeding, affluence, civility, and worn-smooth gentility enables them to spend annually their seasons in a place that is slipping gradually from their grasp. The town changes before their often un-registering eyes, even as they celebrate in quiet festivity, plant their summer flowers, reap their leaves of autumn. The poem shows that, sadly, the summer people-character, taste, and soft ways-lead quite ordinary lives among their flowers, their nightcaps, and their books (some that they read, some that they write). The old order melts before the often unwelcome head of the new, and if it is not (as one of them says) an Aesopian case of "the grasshopper, the ant," it is a case of the town’s direction being assumed by those-like the grocer, like his son, like the executives who run the "Chemical Plant" and buy "the house"-who, for whatever reasons, are unlike the summer people, who as the Azorean Manuel charges, "didn’t care enough to fight." Those others-of a "summer people" mind-are at best careless, at worst uncaring. The poet chooses one of his summer-people friends," Andrew, to close out the narrative. Having been displaced at the keyboard by the Azorean student playing the flute, he fittingly recalls having invoked the moral of "the grasshopper, / the ant." "Breathed Andrew, recollecting / His long ago remark, / Then shut both views behind him / and felt his way down in dark." Departing, Andrew shuts down both views-Main street and the harbor. Merrill’s elegy for a time and a place is complete, at least for now.
Merrill, Stonington’s honored summer person, died while away from Stonington, in Tucson, Arizona, in mid-winter. His ashes were divided for burial in Palm Beach, Florida, and Stonington. On February 13, 1995, he was memorialized in Stonington’s Calvary Church. The church was filled to near-capacity. It was reported that more than 200 persons attended the service. Those who spoke or read poems were fellow-poets-Robin Magowan, Allan Gurganus, John Hollander, Stephen Yenser, and J. D. McClatchy-and a nephew-Bruce Merrill. The homily was given by Paul Moore, Jr., the retired Episcopal bishop of New York. After the service, as the crowd moved slowly out of the church and began to drift toward coffee and cookies in the parish hall, one individual suddenly rushed down the aisle away from the altar, parting the crowd, crying out "Jimmy is coming! Jimmy is coming!" Held fast to his chest was an urn.
Nowhere, at any moment, was there a sign-I thought at the time-to indicate that Stonington was amply represented at this memorial service, though surely there must have been some townspeople in the crowd.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature Brazil–in Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.