TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO James Merrill and his friend David Jackson began taking dictation from The Other World. It was a kind of parlor game--the two chums would set up their Ouija board and smilingly invite smart- talking spirits down (or is it out?) to play. The spirits, luckily, turned out to be chaps rather like themselves--droll, esthetic types with a taste for whimsical speculation and a fast ear for silly puns. Merrill began taking notes of some of their exchanges and indeed incorporated one or two fragments of spirit speech into his poems. His transcriptions, it seems, were not entirely word for word, and he permitted himself a certain amount of creative editing.

Such airy interventions did not sit oddly in James Merrill's work. Even though (with Water Street in 1962) he had toughened and colloquialized his verse line and eliminated much of the wan artifice that marked his very early work, there was still--in his usual persona--a strain of yearning otherwordliness, a delicate discomfiture which was neither neurotic nor ideological. His was a poetry of, and for, the few--the few kindred spirits, one might say.

It seems to have been in the early '70s that Merrill recognized the larger possibilities of his Ouija evenings: the "openings" they offered him into a limitless new realm of subject matter--or, rather, of subjects without matter. He could, with a little help from his teacup, summon a cast of unchallengeable wits and seers--he could quiz them and cajole them, he could submit to their rebukes, he could be instructed by them in morality and art, he could invest them with comic other-worldly personalities, he could dream up post-mortal ranks and stations. He could even, if the mood took him, resurrect and chat for hours with his favorite dead friends.

There would be opportunities also for the poet to play around with theology and science, to dabble in history and myth, to invent comically unsuitable reincarnations for the recently departed, as well as strange "earlier lives" for the still-with-us. Best of all, Merrill--the poet and auditor--could himself remain entirely sane throughout all this; altogether this- worldly in his ironies, his wry asides, his mock- bafflement, his amused deference to intelligence more spacious and untrammeled than his own. He had discovered, in other words -- and, come to think of it, in others' words--a way to launch a modern epic, a vast catch-all enterprise on the scale of Pound's Cantos. The advantage of Merrill's epic, though, would be that he could always deflate it from within-- the heavens he listened in on could always be brought down to earth.

Well, after some eight years of truly awesome labor, Merrill here offers us the finished work. Three parts of it have, of course, already appeared in book form--The Book of Ephraim, published as Divine Comedies in 1976, Mirabell: Books of Number in 1978 and Scripts for the Pageant in 1980. The whole poem--incorporating these three books and adding a new "coda," The Higher Keys, is to be known as The Changing Light at Sandover.

All in all, it is a sprawling, daunting work, running to over 500 pages: that's to say, some 20,000 lines--about twice the length of Paradise Lost. Harold Bloom has said of The Book of Ephraim: "I don't know that (it), at least after some dozen readings, can be over- praised." A neat way of disarming reviewers who have only had time to read the work "some once," or at the very best "some twice." Evidently, we should be cautious about anything resembling a final judgment on this thoroughly original verse monster.

Even so, something must be said, however unreliably impressionistic. It seems clear that Merrill's epic has not been constructed to any Miltonic grand design: it has simply unfolded, year by year. One doubts that the poet quite knew where it would lead him when he first started out. It could be that Merrill was egged on by his admirers to keep extending the work's Larger Importance. At any rate, it is hard for the new reader not to detect a gradual drift from sprightly wit to leaden wisdom, from inspiration to sheer effort. At the beginning, with Ephraim, we have a nice idea, rather brilliantly executed. As the work progresses, it becomes bloated with its own epic pretensions. The longeurs get longer, the speculation more solemn or emptily fanciful, the human presences more numb, the comedy more strenuously "gay." Since Merrill is a clever man, and a real poet, he never quite gets bogged down--indeed, there are some strong lyric parentheses throughout the later books-- but he does move perilously close at times to mere garrulity. A quotation from one of his more prostrate fans, Charles Berger, might unwittingly hint at something of this sort:

"When Divine Comedies appeared in 1976, including the book-length Ephraim, readers could still praise Merrill's superb artistry while evading the content of his vision. This is no longer possible. For Mirabell and Scripts raise so many profound questions about sacred poetry and the relation of the individual to the cosmos, that evading their doctrines would also entail ignoring the wisdom literature of Merrill's greatest predecessors --poets such as Dante, Homer, Milton, Blake."

What can this mean (it is printed on the dust jacket of The Changing Light at Sandover)? We will never know, but in the meantime it is hard to warm to a text which attracts such bovine homage.

Ephraim, the first book of Merrill's sequence, does indeed permit us to evade "the content of his vision," and is all the better for doing so. The book has a vivid central ghost, Ephraim himself, who is far more than a device for instructing us on "the relation of the individual to the cosmos"; he is a memorable fictional character in his own right. And there is a fine balance in the book between supernatural high-jinks and earthbound woes. The trouble begins precisely when Merrill starts using the poem to raise "profound questions" and to make sure that we are unable to "evade" them.

In the later books there are, to be sure, several stretches in which the old balance is recaptured, and Ephraim does make welcome reappearances, but as we read on, the first volume comes more and more to seem a triumph of correct scale. It offers a cosmology that is touchingly miniature and incongruously social. Once this scale gets abandoned, Merrill feels free to indulge himself, to ramble and inflate. Here again, he is ready to disarm us with talk of ". . . this net of loose talk tightening to verse/ And verse once more revolving between two poles/ Gassy expansion and succinct collapse," but this kind of easy charm is, surely, far too easy.

In all four books, the Ouija board's messages are presented in upper-case type--like a computer printout, as someone has observed. In Ephraim, this seems an originality to be savored. In the later books, though, there is a growing oppressiveness as we encounter yet another five-page slab of not entirely lucid capitals. After a time, the snatches of humble upper and lower case typography (used for the human voices) seem to beckon like oases. When Merrill is writing as Merrill--setting a scene, fondly reminiscing, or offering some wry rejoinder to the gods--there is an immediate access of sharpness and weight in the actual writing. Although he seems content to let the spirit world bore us to distraction, he is careful never to let the character JM surrender our esteem. And in this, it must be said, he does largely succeed.

A selection from Merrill's first nine books is now gathered together in one volume--somewhat coyly titled From the First Nine--and it offers an opportunity to remark once more the strength of his lyric and short-narrative gift during the decade 1962-72, and also to note continuities between those earlier volumes (particularly Nights and Days and Braving the Elements) and the several haunting earthly sections which are embedded in his epic.

At one point in The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill tells the dead W.H. Auden (a frequent, slightly irritating, spirit visitor throughout the poem) that he-- Auden--is: "getting mined for all you're worth/ by fresh- faced big-thumbed scholars here on earth." Merrill can now expect a similar fate--if we are to judge by some of the essays in James Merrill: Essays in Criticism. For example: "Dante's totalizing syncretism is the very emblem of what a modern poet, qua modernist, dare not attempt except in ironic or nostalgic admission of its otherness." Jargon-heavy pretentiousness like this prevails in almost every essay in the book, and the whole collection bears a dreadful air of piety. The two best pieces, it seems to me, are by David Kalstone and J.D. McClatchy--reverential, yes, but intelligent and written in English. There is also a (disappointingly uninformative) note on Merrill's Ouija sessions by his co-worker David Jackson.