Study Guide

One of the Lives

One of the Lives Summary

The speaker imagines all the things (important and trivial) that had to fall into place in order for him to end up where he is now—sick, lying on a cot in some farmhouse somewhere. Sounds like a blast. He starts with events that don't seem to have too much of a direct impact on him—a friend whose dad died in the war, the dad's friend's older brother (if you can even follow that), and his kids.

Then he narrows in on more personally significant details. He talks about his choice of a college and about the events that led to his mother and father meeting. Finally, we find our speaker in a country house being attended to by a doctor. The poem ends with the speaker gazing out the window at the distant mountains and listening to plums drop from their trees.

  • Lines 1-9

    Line 1

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

    • The poems starts out, interestingly enough, with a conditional ("if") clause. We expect it to have a second part to it. For example, "If I had not gone to that restaurant, I wouldn't have gotten food poisoning." 
    • We use "if" clauses to create expectancy or suspense, which can be positive or negative. (The expectancy you feel if you leave cookies out for Santa Claus is positive, because you think he'll come fill your stockings with presents. But the expectancy you feel if your boyfriend doesn't text you back is negative, because it means he's probably going to dump you. Bummer.) 
    • So, we want to know what the result of the "if" is. We're thinking the red-haired boy and his dad might be important, or at least relevant to our speaker, because they're mentioned in the first line.

    Lines 2-3

              had broken a leg parachuting into Provence
    to join the resistance in the final stage of the war

    • Provence is in France, and the war our speaker is talking about here is World War II (extra, extra: Shmoop all about it). 
    • So the red-haired kid's dad broke his leg parachuting into France, joining the Allied Forces against Germany in WWII. For more specific deets, check out Shmoop's World War II Timeline, especially April 1940: "Germany Pummels France."
    • We still haven't gotten the second part of our "if" clause yet. In fact, things are getting more complex. We've been thrown even more information. It's no longer a two-part (if I leave the cookies…  then Santa leaves presents) clause. It's not just, "if I hadn't met the boy." It's, "If I hadn't met the boy whose dad got hurt in the war…" and so on. The "ifs" are starting to accumulate into a big snowball that's threatening to run us over before we ever find out the resolution. Help! 
    • Luckily, we do start getting a sense of the time period our speaker is from. If he's from the generation of the red-haired boy, he's probably somewhere between 50 and 65, judging from the present (this poem came out in 1996) to WWII time relationship. MATH!

    Line 4

              and so had been killed there as the Germans were moving north

    • In this line, Merwin is referring to the father with the broken leg. When he parachuted in, he hurt his leg, so he was probably an easy target for the German soldiers. 
    • So instead of resolving the "if" clause, Merwin seems to be layering more and more onto it. We're going to have to keep tracing things back so we can keep track of what he's talking about. 
    • So the red-haired boy's dead dad is somehow significant to the speaker (even though he never knew him). Huh. Let's keep going to see if this knot unravels…

    Lines 5-6

    out of Italy and if the friend who was with him
            as he was dying had not had an elder brother

    • The build-up continues. Now we have a second "if." Sheesh!
    • The fact that so far there's no punctuation adds to the overwhelming feeling. We're getting all of this loosely connected information all at once, which has a bombarding effect. It's almost as if Merwin is playing that game where you go around a circle and everybody adds on to the sentence until it gets out of control and nobody can remember how it started. Hopefully we'll see how all of this connects to our speaker, you know, before the poem ends. 
    • So the boy's father who died had a friend in the army, and that friend had an older brother. Everybody writing this down?

    Lines 7-8

    who also died young quite differently in peacetime
             leaving two children one of them with bad health

    • Whoa. We are getting further and further away from our speaker. At this point, there are four degrees of separation. We're just dying to know how they connect to the speaker. 
    • To be clear (as clear as we can be): the red-haired boy's dad's friend had an older brother who died, not in the war, but in peacetime, and also while he was still pretty young. 
    • This older brother (who was not in the war) left two kids behind, one of whom was sickly. Still with us? Let's keep moving…

    Line 9

    who had been kept out of school for a whole year by an illness

    • The sickly son of the red-haired boy's dad's friend's dead older brother (whew!) missed a year of school because his sickness was so bad. 
    • The degrees of separation from the speaker at this point, and the amount of "ifs," is getting overwhelming!
    • We're still left wondering how to resolve the puzzle—if all of these things hadn't happened, then… what? And we're still wondering how they relate to our speaker. So far, we know nothing about our speaker, except in very distant connection to all of these mini-stories.
  • Lines-10-18

    Lines 10-11

              and if I had written anything else at the top
    of the examination form where it said college

    • Our speaker is back! The "I" reemerges. We should celebrate, right? Let's find out…
    • Don't put your party hats on too quickly. We have another "if," and this one has no connection so far for the ones before it. 
    • Somehow, whatever our speaker wrote on top of this college entrance exam is important enough to include alongside all these other mini-histories. 
    • Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait to find out why it's important, because the speaker is really keeping us in suspense. Fiddlesticks. Why do you think that is?

    Lines 12-13

              of your choice or if the questions that day had been
    put differently and if a young woman in Kittanning

    • The exam seems to have had something to do with where our speaker ended up at college. 
    • This is our first clearly personal significant event of his past that our speaker has let us in on. So far, we still don't know why he's mentioned all the other stuff about the red-haired boy and the war.
    • We thought for a second that, with the reemergence of the "I," our speaker was going to spill the deets. No soup, though. Instead, it looks like he's off in yet another direction, telling us about a young woman in Kittanning.

    Line 14

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

    • Ah, so now we're back to the personally significant. The woman in Pennsylvania was the speaker's father's driving instructor (if you can follow that). 
    • 20 is pretty late to be learning how to drive, especially when you consider that, back in the day (when the speaker's dad was growing up), kids often learned to drive even earlier than we do now. 
    • Maybe the father's driving lessons (late as they were), ended up being somehow important to our speaker.

    Lines 15-16

    so that he got the job with the pastor of the big church
               in Pittsburgh where my mother was working and if

    • Ah-ha! Mother meets father. This is absolutely significant to our speaker. After all, his parents had to meet in order for him to be born, right? 
    • So the driving lessons enabled his father to leave town to get a job in "the big church" in a bigger city—Pittsburgh. 
    • Look out, though. At the end of line 16, Merwin throws in another "if." He's really piling them up on us!

    Lines 17-18

    my mother had not lost both parents when she was a child
    so that she had to go to her grandmother's in Pittsburgh

    • Man—there's a lot of dying in this poem: first the soldier, then his brother, and now the speaker's maternal grandparents. 
    • So, the speaker's father ends up in Pittsburgh for a job, and his mother moves there as a kid to live with her grandparents. 
    • Without exactly saying how his parents met, the speaker tells us about the outside forces that drew them together.
  • Lines 19-29

    Lines 19-20

    I would not have found myself on an iron cot
              with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse

    • Finally! We get the second part of the "if" clause. Woo-hoo! Hopefully this "would not have" statement will extend long enough to explain all of the "ifs" that have been introduced so far. 
    • Our speaker's back! More specifically, he's in some old-timey stone farmhouse. It sounds as though he didn't plan to be there ("I found myself"), but there he is. 
    • We're getting excited that this speaker's letting himself into this poem little by little.

    Line 21

    that had stood empty since some time before I was born

    • The farmhouse our speaker is in was uninhabited for a long time. Could it be a relative's farmhouse?
    • We're getting a good sense of time. It's hard to tie all of this information that predates our speaker together, but this line helps somewhat. 
    • Things are getting interesting. Why is our speaker lying in this old farmhouse? Is he visiting? Has he inherited it? Is anyone else there? C'mon, buddy, dish!
    • We're on the edge of our seats.

    Lines 22-23

                I would not have travelled so far to lie shivering
    with fever though I was wrapped in everything in the house

    • Our speaker is sick, which is why he's lying on the cot. Bummer. 
    • And he doesn't live there permanently. In fact, it seems like he lives pretty far away. 
    • This is the second mention of sickness in the poem. The first was the soldier's friend's older brother's sickly son. 
    • Maybe the speaker has so much time for strange and intricate reflection about how he got where he is (both literally in this farmhouse, and his very existence) because he's been lying on a cot with a fever.

    Lines 24-25

               nor have watched the unctuous doctor hold up his needle
    at the window in the rain light of October

    • "Unctuous" has a lot of definitions. One definition is oily or greasy. We don't think this is what he means, though. (Come on, an oily doctor?) Another definition, though, is smug or ingratiating, which means trying to flatter people too much. In other words, this doctor is kind of wormy and smarmy. Maybe the doctor is trying to use flattery to distract the speaker before he jabs him with the needle! 
    • The speaker is sick enough to have a doctor come to him to either inject medication or draw blood. Not fun.
    • Merwin contrasts the somewhat spooky picture of the doctor holding up a needle with the much prettier description of the how the light looks out the window in October after it's been raining.

    Lines 26-27

               I would not have seen through the cracked pane the darkening
    valley with its river sliding past the amber mountains

    • The cracked window is evidence of the farmhouse having been abandoned for so long. 
    • Even though pane and pain have entirely different meanings, they're homonyms (they sound the same), and Merwin might have wanted us to keep the pain of our sick and suffering speaker in mind when he chose that word. 
    • More beauty! As the speaker looks out the window he sees this beautiful, if a little damp, natural view. 
    • "I would not" is the final resolution of all of those previously mentioned "ifs." So if he had not met the red-haired boy—and on and on and on—then he would not be here right now looking at this beautiful view. All of these "ifs" seem to be coming together on this sickbed in the farmhouse.

    Line 28

    nor have wakened hearing plums fall in the small hour

    • The phrase "small hour" is kind of like "wee hours"—in other words, early. 
    • So the speaker would not have been able to see the beautiful sights out the window, or heard the peaceful sound of plums falling, if all the things he mentioned before hadn't happened. 
    • So at first these things seemed unrelated—or at least, distant from our speaker. But really, it seems like even seemingly unrelated events had to fall into place in order for our speaker to end up where he is now. Maybe there's some kind of causal force out there that is beyond our understanding.
    • In terms of scale—big things to small—these plums are pretty interesting. Merwin has spent most of the poem explaining major events in people's lives—dying in a war, getting sick, moving to a big city—but he's closing the poem with this really simple and soft sound of plums falling. Though things were twisting and turning for most of the poem, it seems like they're quieting down at the end.

    Line 29

    thinking I knew where I was as I heard them fall

    • Hmm. This line is working on a couple of different levels. 
    • First, you know that feeling when you wake up in a strange bed and can't quite figure out where you are for a second? That could be the feeling Merwin is describing here, on a literal level. 
    • On a deeper level, though, maybe the speaker is talking more about an overall sense of identity than simply a physical place. Think about it: he's spent the whole poem tracing back all these events in different parts of the world that led to this moment at the farmhouse. The other people and their histories help create the speaker's sense of where he is in his life. 
    • At least, they give him that overall impression. It's important to note there that he thinks he knows where he is, but he doesn't say that he knows for sure.
    • Some uncertainty still remains, even in this peaceful moment.
    • In any case, though, the poem, which has spent so much time and energy reporting the factual events of other people's lives, ends on a quiet, personal note of reflection.