Study Guide

One of the Lives Quotes

  • Family

    If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father (1)

    Family matters are already being introduced. We're not to the speaker's family yet, but it's important nonetheless.

    as he was dying had not had an elder brother (6)

    Merwin is weaving all the family ties together, even if it's a family far removed from the speaker's.

    leaving two children one of them with bad health (8)

    Again, Merwin is showing the interconnectedness of families and how they continue on through the generations.

    had not taught my father to drive at the age of twenty (14)

    There's the old man! Our speaker begins to relate all of this family business to his own. It's getting slightly more personal.

    in Pittsburgh where my mother was working and if (16)

    And here's mom. We see where this is going!

    my mother had not lost both her parents when she was a child (17)

    We thought we were moving forward to the speaker's birth, but here we take a mini-step back to his mom's family, before she officially meets our speaker's dad.

    so that she had to go to her grandmother's in Pittsburgh (18)

    Location! Home! Pittsburgh is significant to our speaker's family. But also, family is important to our speaker's family. Here we see his mother going to her grandmother's after her parents die. In a way, it's like she's going back in time (to be cared for by her older grandmother), yet she remains connected to her family—just like our speaker. Jinx!

  • Identity

    If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father (1)

    This line might not seem like it has much to do with identity, but it's the beginning of a very long sequence of events that helped shape who our speaker is. It all begins with a red-haired boy.

               and if I had written anything else at the top
    of the examination form where it said college (10-11)

    The choices the speaker made a long time ago, in his youth, affect who he is now, even if they didn't seem like a big deal at the time. So, straighten up and fly straight, all you young Shmoopers out there!

    I would not have found myself on an iron cot (19)

    This is the point in the poem where the speaker starts to think about himself (finally). He's been chatting about all these other people, and now he's taking the opportunity to consider exactly who all of this makes him.

                with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse
    that had stood empty since some time before I was born (20-21)

    The speaker is considering how the farmhouse relates to his own personal history. Even this building is somehow related to his sense of himself. ("You're so vain, you probably think this farmhouse is about you…")

    I would not have travelled so far to lie shivering (22)

    The speaker has come from far away to be in this place, and it seems to have cost him his health. Why go through all that trouble? He might have come back to what he considers home to better understand himself.

    thinking I knew where I was when I heard them fall (29)

    Seems like Merwin could have substituted "where I was" for "who I was." Our speaker does all of this soul-searching during the poem, and by the end he seems to have a better, but still not perfect, sense of who he is. He thinks he knows, but that's a far cry from certainty. That checks out, though. Do we truly, perfectly, 100% know ourselves? Haven't you ever done anything to surprise yourself? Then you'll probably agree with the speaker here.

  • Fate and Free Will

    If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father (1)

    If the speaker had never met this boy, he wouldn't be where (and who) he is today. Our speaker didn't choose to meet this boy, he just did.

    and if I had written anything else at the top of the examination where it said college (10-11)

    This could go either way, but it seems like more of a choice, or free will moment. The speaker chooses a certain college and that sends his life down a certain path.

                […] or if the questions that day had been
    put differently […] (12-13)

    Now Merwin is mixing it up. The speaker chose the college, but not the difficulty of the questions. So there's a little mix of a fate and free will here.

    […] if a young woman in Kittanning
                had not taught my father to drive at the age of twenty
    so that he got the job with the pastor at the big church
                in Pittsburg where my mother was working […] (13-16)

    The meeting of his parents seems like pure fate. (Aww.) Outside forces drew them to Pittsburgh where they met.

    […] and if
    my mother had not lost both parents when she was a child
                  so that she had to go to her grandmother's in Pittsburgh (16-18)

    This dash of fate applies both to how the mother and father met, and to how the speaker ends up in that farmhouse. Mysterious and unpredictable forces brought them together, and put the speaker where he is. Thanks tons, forces!

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    […] and if the friend who was with him
               as he was dying had not had an elder brother
    who also died quite young differently in peacetime
               leaving two children one of them with bad health (5-8)

    This super-long quote is an example of how the speaker ties his existence to events and people that seem completely unrelated to him. Our existence, Merwin suggests, hinges on so much more than what is immediately apparent to us. Far out.

    I would not have found myself on an iron cot (19)

    The speaker is attempting to collect all of the random events that put him where he is today. It's an interesting point of view—he's trying to see himself in relationship to the rest of the universe. It's kind of like an infinitely large Where's Waldo? drawing.

                with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse
    that had stood empty since some time before I was born (20-21)

    Now the speaker is looking at his existence in relation to time. In other words, the world was going on long before he was ever part of it. This is the small, insignificant feeling that we get when we think about how big the word (and history) actually is. When you think about it, we are very, very, very itty bitty.

    I would not have travelled so far to lie shivering (22)

    Travel here seems like a kind of quest. Epic. Maybe our speaker, feeling lost in his life, set out to figure some personal things out, and went on a journey toward self-discovery.

    nor have watched the unctuous doctor hold up his needle (24)

    This is kind of a creepy line. It's almost as if our speaker is being confronted by his own mortality. His sickness, and the doctor's presence, might be making him think about the meaning of his life more than he normally would.

              I would not have seen through the cracked pane the darkening
    valley with its river sliding past the amber mountains (26-27)

    Our speaker gazes out the window, contemplating the beauty of the world and his place in it. Nice.

               nor have wakened hearing plums fall in the small hour
    thinking I knew where I was as I heard them fall (28-29)

    Man, it's great to be alive! The speaker seems to be grateful to be able to appreciate the subtle beauty of plums falling at dawn. Having looked back so far and taken notice of the hugeness of the universe, our speaker is happy to be occupying his small speck within it.