Born on January 31, 1915 in France to artist parents, Thomas Merton moved to New York before he was one year old. His mother, Ruth, died from cancer when he was six years old. After her death, Merton lived with his grandparents on Long Island while his father, Owen, traveled.
By March of 1925, after he had recovered from a serious illness, Owen took Merton with him back to France and enrolled him in a boys' boarding school in Montauban. There, he befriended several scholars and writers and began work on his own writing. Because Owen was showing work often at galleries in London, he relocated Merton to a boarding school in Surrey in 1928. In 1929, Merton's father again fell ill and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Merton took up residency at The Oakham School, a boarding school in Rutland, England. Owen Merton died on January 16, 1931.
At Oakham, Merton became more accomplished in his studies. However, upon graduation, he decided to travel, spending time in France and Italy. He spent freely, funded by his guardian, his father's former physician Tom Bennett. In 1933, he stayed in Rome where he felt compelled to attend and explore various churches and religious institutions including Tre Fontane, a Trappist monastery. In the fall of that year, he enrolled in Clare College at Cambridge, where he seemingly lost interest in his religious and other studies, living a somewhat reckless lifestyle.
At the end of the term, with guidance from Tom Bennett, Merton returned to the United States and enrolled at Columbia University. It was there that Merton re-claimed his scholarship, befriending poets, journalists and other scholars. After receiving his B.A., he stayed on at Columbia to pursue graduate study. At this time, his religious interests were once again growing, reinforced by his teachers and friends. Merton wrote his thesis on William Blake. After reading about Gerard Manley Hopkins' conversion to Catholicism and the priesthood, Merton was inspired to pursue his own vocation. He was baptized in 1938, and began studying the catechism of the Catholic church.
Merton's academic success at Columbia resulted in his winning the Columbia University literary prize at the culmination of his graduate studies in 1939. In 1940, Merton began teaching in the English department at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. While teaching there, he renounced any remnants of an unchaste lifestyle and delved into prayer and spirituality. In 1941, he went on a week-long retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown, KY. He felt such a pull to Gethsemani that he would return there several months later to propose joining the order. He was accepted as a postulant and studied to prove his sincerity. In March 1942, he was accepted as a monk. In 1947, he took the solemn vow of commitment to remain at the monastery for his lifetime. In 1949, he was ordained as a Catholic priest.
Merton published nearly 50 books in his lifetime. While at Gethsemani, he published his journals as a series of autobiographical works, beginning with The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. He also published books of poetry, including Thirty Poems (1944), Figures for an Apocalypse (1948), and Strange Islands (1957). A thousand-page volume, Collected Poems of Thomas Merton was published posthumously in 1977. His poetry was noted for being long, prosy, and autobiographical. His work shifts between the spiritual and the secular.
Of his work, poet Kathleen Norris has said: "Merton has a mystic's sense of unity, and in his poems, he wants to bring as much together as he can. Sometimes he does it with monastic simplicity...but Merton can also insist on plentitude, and a wild extravagance flowers in much of his work."
In 1968, Merton, with the support of Gethsemani, attended an interfaith conference in Thailand. In Bangkok, while adjusting an appliance in his residence, he was electrocuted on December 10th where he died at the age of 53.