How might one explain, line by line, the meaning of Sir Walter Ralegh's poem "To His Son"?
Sir Walter Ralegh’s sonnet “To His Son” is characterized by a number of traits, including the following:
- It is openly didactic. In other words, it is designed to teach lessons – in this case lessons about morality and proper behavior.
- It deals with the theme of mutability, or the idea of change.
- It uses repetitions of phrasing and structure to emphasize its points.
- It is very clearly structured. Thus, line 5 “sets up” lines 6-8. The speaker of the poem seems an eminently reasonable person, not only in what he says but in the careful structure and simple clarity with which he says it.
- It is ironic, as Ralegh imagines his son (“my pretty boy”) someday being hanged if he does not behave himself in proper ways.
- It is brutally honest and pulls no punches: it explains very explicitly the risks Ralegh’s son faces if he fails to behave well.
- At the same time, the poem is witty and clever, so that the brutal honesty is balanced by obvious affection, as in the phrase “dear boy.”
- It is tightly controlled, as in the way line 10 sums up and explains everything that has gone before.
- The sestet of the poem (the last six lines) makes explicit what is only implied in the octave (the first eight lines), even though the poem is not strictly a Petrarchan sonnet.
- It is rooted in Christian morality, as line 13 clearly implies.
- It ends on a note of clever word-play:
let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.
Basically, Ralegh warns his son that if his misbehaves, he may someday be executed. Apparently Ralegh’s son really did need all the warnings his father here offers. Ironically, however, it was Ralegh himself who eventually died by being executed.
There are three things that grow well and quickly when they are separate, until one day they grow together. Those three things are trees, weeds, and boys. Trees can grow up to become the gallows on which people are hanged. Weeds can grow up to become ropes used by hangmen. One example of a growing boy is you, my son. Pay attention, sweet son: as long as these three things remain separate, each of them grows somewhat wildly. But when they come together, the gallows rots, the noose becomes twisted, and the child can be strangled by being hanged with a rope suspended from a gallows. Therefore, I wish you well, son, and I hope that everyone will pray that you don’t die because you someday meet up with the rope and the gallows.
Raleigh wrote this sonnet while a prisoner in the Tower of London—he had become aware that his son was leading a less-than-ideal life. Line by line, we might "translate" the poem as such:
There are three things that do well
And flourish, while they grow further and further apart;
But there must come a point where they all come together again.
When they meet, they make each other worse.
The three things are the wood, the weed (cloth, clothing), and the wag (the young rake).
Don't forget that wood is the key component of the gallows tree (leads to hangings)
The weed (cloth) makes up the bag placed over the head of the condemned;
The wag (young rake) is you, the young man misbehaving in society.
Listen: while these three bad things haven't come together yet,
The tree grows strongly, the material for the cloth grows, and the rake runs wild;
But when they get together, the wood begins to rot,
The cloth frays, and the child is choked.
So: remember all of this, and let's pray
That we don't lose you when these things come together.
Essentially, the poet is concerned that his son will find his behavior will lead him to be hanged; he suggests there are many bad elements which seem fine separately but which can come together to land a man in a terrible position—such as in the Tower of London.