‘A Renewal’: You’ll Know When You Know

To have love, one must give love; to give love, one must have it to give. That may be life’s deepest catch-22, Hobson’s choice, Morton’s fork—any of those logical situations whose suppositions exist only to support the logic that requires them. Love is illogical, or at least has its own logic; “How Will I Know?” pretty well sums it up. My mother (it is her birthday today) would have replied to Ms. Houston: “You’ll know when you know.”

The moment love is not pursued, there it is; advice to a young lover often follows that logic. “When you stop looking for it or needing it, you will find love.” (It only took about three decades of hearing that for it to sink in for me, which reminds me that it is Valentine’s Day soon.)

(The Morton’s fork logical fallacy originated with a system of tax collection instituted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal John Morton, in the 1400s. He reasoned that no one ought to be exempt from paying taxes to the king because if a subject lives frugally, he must have money saved and can afford to spend some of it in taxes, and if he lives extravagantly, he can afford to spend his money more wisely … and some of it in taxes.)

James Merrill’s poem “A Renewal” presents love’s illogical logic in merely eight lines. A lover attempts a break-up and it all goes wrong. Or right.

A Renewal
Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.
—James Merrill, Collected Poems, page 66

“I am willing to bear the guilt” for our break-up. “It’s not you—it’s me,” many deceitful ex-lovers have sung. The first stanza is rhetoric, logic applied to a logical circumstance: We are breaking up and here is my case for it, sort of. Of course, the speaker admits (to us) he is lying. A shift in perception follows, though: “A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.” All of nature in autumn, the park the lovers are sitting in filled with multi-colored leaves and dried, falling, crunchy leaves, is the inside of a vase filled with leaves, a decoration. It is the one line in the poem that has no logic, is not rhetorical, is a metaphor for something that it is not describing. Love is a shift in perception.

"A Renewal" (Click for full size.)

“A Renewal” (Click for full size.)

It took many drafts to arrive at the line. Alfred A. Knopf, Merrill’s longtime publisher, has eight drafts of the poem available on its website. (Drafts of “A Renewal.”) One is handwritten, but it is the poem as published and not a draft. The rest are typed and covered with notes and doodles. One early one shows Merrill attempted a third-person narrative:

Having used every other subterfuge
To harm her, haste, fatigue, or even those of passion,
Now he had no choice but a clean break.
He told her he was willing to bear the guilt,

All of it. Her eyes turned gray and huge,
Each pupil rimmed with fire like the black sun
At full eclipse. Neither one could speak.
Innocence plunged into him, up to the hilt.

From the start of writing the poem, Merrill knew he wanted an argument, an emotional turn, the phrase “up to the hilt,” and a painterly metaphor in the fifth line. At first, it was her eyes “rimmed with fire.” No one could speak. After that fierce image, who could?

A later draft shifts to the first person. The gender of the speaker and object are lost (Merrill was gay and never concealed that fact, even in the 1940s and ’50s, when he composed “A Renewal”). He continues to hold onto “Up to the hilt,” but it is a jarring thunk to end the poem; he almost wants it to join the logical, rhetorical list of the first stanza.

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

All of it. The room turns strange and huge.
The ferns that you brought home shiver as you sit heavily down,
Looking away. Neither of us can speak.
Love plunges into me, up to the hilt.

The fifth line is still the home for metaphor, and now the metaphor involves vegetation (ferns), but “as you sit heavily down” is as clunky as someone sitting heavily down. The room is strange and huge because emotions are running high. The two lovers are speechless, which calls into question why there would be one more line to the poem at all. “Hilt” sits heavily at the end and is there mainly because it rhymes with “guilt,” it seems.

“Shiver” provided him with a solution. The shivering fern gives way in later drafts to autumn’s vibrating leaves, and then leaving someone becomes the illogical part of the poem, the lie, the subterfuge. Further, “innocence” was never “plunging” into the lying lover anyway. Love buries itself into the speaker, like a sword or like a loved one’s head buried in his arms. “Up to the hilt” still jars, but because it surprises the speaker who felt it just as much as the reader encountering it. “A Renewal” presents a moment in time outside logic or even poetry.

Love does not make any sense, but it is the only thing that does. “You’ll know when you know.”

* * * *
Please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thegadabouttown

The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 3 asks, “If you had to choose between being able to write a blog (but not read others’) and being able to read others’ blogs (but not write your own), which would you pick? Why?” The question was titled “Morton’s fork,” and a previous version was titled “Hobson’s choice.” Giving things a title like that is how things like this happen. James Merrill died twenty years ago this Friday.



  1. alotfromlydia · February 3, 2015

    Happy Birthday to your mom!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. livingonchi · February 4, 2015

    I was so busy studying your analysis of James Merrill’s poem, I forgot your mother’s birthday. I hope she had a really nice one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Texts from Beyond | The Gad About Town
  4. Pingback: Today in History, March 3 | The Gad About Town
  5. Pingback: ‘A Renewal’ | The Gad About Town

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.