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.