Study Guide

One of the Lives Themes

  • Family

    The speaker of "One of the Lives" is sick, on a cot, and hanging out in this farmhouse. Best vacation ever? Well, it works for him, since he's able to recall a ton of peripheral history—things that don't seem important in terms of his or his family's history. There are some serious degrees of separation between these people and events and his family history. Though no one in his family is actually present with the speaker in farmhouse, we still feel their presence. He talks about his father and mother from a time before he was born. We're left without many family specifics, but that doesn't mean this poem doesn't convey a sense of family, specifically in a generational way that stresses the long-distance influence of those who have gone before. Our speaker seems to appreciate the fact that there was already so much to his family before he ever came into the picture. Warm fuzzy alert!

    Questions About Family

    1. What do you think the speaker's relationship to his family is? Why? 
    2. Where do you think his family is? In the farmhouse with him? Far away? Dead? Why do you think so? 
    3. Why do you think Merwin includes details about other people's families in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's family is dead (bummer) and it's deep thoughts time. He's thinking back to mourn them and reflect on his own life.

    Family is important to our speaker, but it's not like he's in the mafia. He's interested in his family history only so far as it reminds him that he is connected to lives before his own, and that he will continue to be connected to lives after he is gone.

  • Identity

    Who am I? How did I come to be? These are the two super-big questions that seem to preoccupy the speaker throughout "One of the Lives," although he never asks them directly. As he delves back into his personal history and beyond, you see him begin a quest for answers. It's almost as if he feels a need to include all the details, important or not, to piece together the puzzle of his identity. (Hint: start with the edge pieces.) Nearly all of the people mentioned (no matter how insignificant they seem) have a part in shaping our speaker's identity. It's pretty weird to think his father's driving instructor had anything to do with forming the speaker's identity, but she did her small part, just like the red-haired boy did his. It's a small world after all. (Thanks, Disney!)

    Questions About Identity

    1. Based on the information in the poem, what kind of person do you think the speaker is? 
    2. Why do you think the speaker chooses to reflect on his identity at this moment? 
    3. Of the things mentioned, which do you feel were most important in shaping our speaker's identity? Why?

    Chew on This

    The speaker feels lost at this point of his life, like he doesn't know who he is (or else somebody's swiped his GPS). He reflects on all this history in order to get a sense of his present identity.

    The kind of reflection that the speaker is doing means that he can never have a purely original identity. He will always owe who he is to the lives and events that have gone before him.

  • Fate and Free Will

    How much of what goes on in our lives do we choose, and how much is chosen for us? This is another question that hangs in the background of "One of the Lives." The speaker seems to be suggesting that fate is more important than free will. All of these trivial things—what the speaker writes on his college exam, the job his father takes, the death of a soldier he doesn't even know—work together to bring our speaker to where he is now. Sick. On a cot. In a farmhouse. Good times. What's more, he didn't have any say in most of the things he reports to us—they just happened, they were fated to be. All these small details (and an infinite number of others not mentioned) came together to put the speaker where he is at this moment: staring out the window and listening to plums dropping from their branches. Talking about it all "falling" into place (sorry, we couldn't resist).

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Which is more important in determining our lives according to this poem, fate or free will? Why do you think so?
    2. Do you think the speaker feels he has any control over his own life? Is he merely a passive victim of fate? 
    3. Despite the fact that most of the poem takes place in the past, there are a few key free-will moments here. Can you identify them?

    Chew on This

    According to this poem, life is just a happy accident (high five!) brought about by a bunch of small and unrelated events.

    According to this poem, life is a brought about by a series of choices people make (no pressure or anything). Fate doesn't have much to do with it at all.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    The identity part of "One of the Lives" deals with who the speaker is. His existence, though similar to identity, deals more with his place in the broader scheme of things—you know, like a speck in the universe. A grain of sand on a beach. A pawn in the game of life. It's about the position he holds in the world in relationship to all the other people he mentions. He comes to discover that his very existence hinges on all of these past people and events that have nothing to do with him whatsoever. It's got to make a guy feel important and insignificant all at once. One the one hand, so many things had to happen in order for him to exist. On the other, these people made all of these choices without the slightest thought about him. Thanks a lot, universe.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. If the poem is about our speaker's life, why does he spend so much time and energy talking about other people? 
    2. How old do you think the speaker is? Do you think his age has anything to do with him reflecting on his life? 
    3. Do you think the speaker's sickness has anything to do with him reflecting on his life? Why?

    Chew on This

    He can see clearly now the rain is gone. The speaker's existence—his place in the universe—becomes clearer as he reflects on all the distant events and people that had to come together in order for him to be alive.

    This poem is a kind of grateful meditation on life. Like an Academy Award winner, the speaker is thanking all the small players in his history who have brought him to this moment. Only, instead of holding an Oscar, he's sitting by the window, listening to plums fall at dawn.