What does the opening line of the poem Sonnet 29 mean?

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Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

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The opening line of the poem “Sonnet 29” by George Santayana means that the narrator of the poem is questioning the reasons of why this person believes the narrator is “poor” and “sad.” The narrator does not believe at all that he is poor or sad and is defending himself regarding this.

First off, he is asking the person to define the true meaning of riches and explain why he or she believes they are rich while he is deemed poor. In reality, being considered rich is a subjective state. One person’s richness is another person’s poverty. For example, an individual who has had a harsh, deprived life, and who suddenly acquires a modest influx of funds to be able to purchase a very used car may consider themselves now rich and blessed. To an affluent observer however, this person is poor and in a somewhat wretched state and this person would never want to be in this situation.

Likewise, the narrator does not consider himself sad and again demands of the questioner why he or she feels he or she is happy while believing the narrator is sad. Again, sadness is a subjective state. A person can be very sad and even become depressed if he or she has received a lay-off notice at their place of employment. Another person may roll with punches and look at the lay-off as an impetus to explore a new and more rewarding career path. It’s all about peoples’ respective personality inclinations and how people view situations.

The narrator of this poem challenges the questioner to reveal why he or she is “exceeding glad.” He asks “Is your earth happy or your heaven sure?” In other words, what guarantee does the questioner have that he or she will remain in this happy state, and what guarantee does the questioner have that he or she will attain the afterlife they believe in.

The narrator is at peace with himself, and therefore rich and happy (as he defines richness and happiness) because he hopes for heaven. He does not subscribe to other peoples’ definitions of what constitutes wealth/security (riches) and contentment/joy (happiness). He is secure and confident in his own views concerning these two states. As a result, he is not afraid to defend his positions regarding these two things and demand of others to explain why they believe he is lacking in these two areas.

In addition, the narrator finds riches and happiness in the traditions and former instruction of his ancestors. This is revealed in this line:

“To me the faiths of old are daily bread;

I bless their hope, I bless their will to save,”

The narrator says that he will go content to his grave at death. He is happy with his choices in life and it is obvious he has no regrets that haunt him.  Therefore, he is rich and he is comfortable with his station in life. He does not compare himself to others and does not measure what he believes is success against what others believe. The narrator is an independent thinker who believes in himself and how he has handled his life and he does not let others convince him otherwise.

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lrswank | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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The opening line of George Santayana's "Sonnet 29" establishes that the speaker has been told he is poor by someone with whom he converses, and it elicits a reflective response that shows exactly what the speaker truly values.

What riches have you that you deem me poor,
Or what large comfort that you call me sad?

The first line (in conjunction with lines 2-4) is simultaneously accusatory and self-aware, for the speaker uses ten of the thirteen remaining lines of the poem to express his own ideas about the non-materialistic aspects of his life: heaven, those "faiths" his elders held in high regard, and his connection to those who have gone before him. The first four lines of the sonnet set the tone for the reflective and responsive nature of the rest of the poem, for it seems he has been provoked not only into a verbal response, but also into an inward consideration of what he does, indeed, value. 

A closer look at the word "riches" allows the reader to realize (after finishing the poem) that the speaker and his companion do not value the same things. The speaker's "riches" are not material things, which serve to show that though he is judged to be "poor" in material goods, he is not so in faith.

Santayana's choice of the second person "you" may also serve to help his readers imagine a similar time when someone has misjudged their own surroundings or the way in which they live life. Santayana was a gifted philosopher among other vocations; often a poet's personal views are quite evident in poetry. Reading about Santayana's life at the link below will provide you more insight into his poetry.  Just remember that if you are writing an academic response about a poem, it's best to refer to the speaker not as the poet himself/herself unless you know for sure that was the poet's intent.  

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boomer-sooner | College Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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"What riches have you that you deem me poor,

Or what large comfort that you call me sad?"

     In this sonnet, Santayana is challenging the assumptions people make in every day life when assigning emotions or categories to other people.  The first line questions what you have that makes you "rich".  When you label someone as "poor", then such a comparison must be made against some level of monetary value.  So, what makes one person "rich" and another person "poor"?  This is the question Santayana is demanding.  He is challenging the arrogance of people labeling others according to their own bias.

     The continuation of the first line, is asking the same question about calling someone "sad".  What assurance do you have which makes you "happy"?  This is also addressing the categorization of assuming someone is or should be sad.

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