Study Guide

One of the Lives Family

By M.S. Merwin


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.

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