This is an eight-line poem that does a wonderful job of describing the unknowable nature of love and how it can come and go without one’s permission. Love strikes the speaker at the end of the piece in a violent and memorable way.
Explore A Renewal
‘A Renewal’ by James Merrill is told from the perspective of a speaker who is desperately trying to end a relationship but is struck by love again.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes how they have tried everything they know to get out of a relationship. Finally, they are at the point where they know there’s nothing for it but to make a “clean break.” They are willing to bear the guilt for ending this relationship, which was important to them at one point, on their shoulders.
In the second stanza, the person with whom they previously had a relationship agrees to the separation. But, as a two were watching the autumn wind, love strikes the speaker again.
You can read the full poem here.
Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.
In the first lines of James Merrill’s poem, the speaker begins by bringing the reader into the middle of a scene. This is known as in medias res. Readers have to figure out what’s going on without having been provided with introductory information or knowledge of who the characters are. The speaker is talking to “you,” someone that they are trying to end a relationship with.
It is their intention to break off this relationship in the easiest way (for them) possible. The speaker has tried to “shake you” using lies, fatigue, and more. But, now they know that there is “no way but a clean break.” This suggests that they are going to state their intentions clearly rather than trying to act in a certain way that brings the relationship to a close without them having to bear the guilt.
The speaker knows now that there is no way for them to get out of this relationship without accepting the guilt on their own shoulders. Understanding the meaning of this first stanza depends heavily on a reader’s knowledge of what’s to come. This means that it is beneficial when attempting to analyze the meaning of this piece to read the entire poem and then go through every line again, considering what is going to happen next and what the reader now knows about the speaker.
You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.
In the second stanza, the person with whom this speaker is trying to end the relationship nods in assent. They agreed to everything the speaker said but, it’s at this point at things take a different turn. The poet uses skillful examples of imagery to move the poem, briefly, away from the speaker’s troubles with their relationship to the natural world around them. By describing the shaking of autumn leaves (a season that usually symbolizes change), they are indicating that the narrator’s world is shifting. Something is changing within them that is going to affect the outcome of this entire encounter.
Within a few moments, as the speaker and their ex-partner sit and watch the wind blow the leaves around, the speaker experiences a renewed love for this person. The poet uses personification, describing how “love” buried itself within the speaker “up to the hilt.” Here, the poet also uses an example of a metaphor. They are comparing love to a knife, one that is stabbed into the speaker’s body, ensuring that there is no escape.
Structure and Form
‘A Renewal’ by James Merrill is a two-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are written in free verse. This means that the poet does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The end words, such as “subterfuge,” “passion,” and “break” do not rhyme.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: occurs when a poet inserts a pause in a line of verse. This could be through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “Now I see no way but a clean break” and “To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “watching. When” in line three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.”
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues a nonhuman animal, thing, or force with human characteristics. An example can be seen in the last line of the poem.
The meaning is that love is unknowable and changeable. It can come when one is not expecting it to and leave just as quickly. The poem describes, through a few lines, how one person went from desperately wanting to end a relationship to being so consumed by love that it is as though they were stabbed, up to the hilt, by a knife.
The purpose is to speak about the nature of love and how it can change in unexpected ways. The speaker has for a time, been trying to get out of a relationship, and has finally succeeded. They are then stabbed by love at the end of the poem. It reasserts itself in the speaker’s life in a way that they did not expect.
The speaker is unknown. It is someone who is trying to get out of a relationship at the beginning of the poem, but by the end, is firmly caught up in a new love for this person. It is unclear whether or not the speaker is the poet himself, but it is better to assume that he is writing in the guise of a persona rather than adding meaning that the poem doesn’t have.
The tone is accepting and descriptive. The speaker uses a second-person perspective throughout much of this piece to direct their words to the person with whom they are trying to end a relationship. As the lines progress, the speaker describes the emotional changes that came over them and how now, love has embraced them in a new, violent way.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other James Merrill poems. For example:
- ‘The Broken Home’ – delves deep into the past thinking about his own house, his parent’s divorce, and the effect it had on his life.
Other related poems include:
- ‘Love is Not a Word’ by Riyas Qurana – a poem that personifies love and dives into the notion of love and what is needed to maintain it in relationships.
- ‘Love After Love’ by Derek Walcott – is presented in the form of a person offering advice to someone who is distressed.