Introduction

This poem talks about a father who sees his son on the verge of becoming an adult. The poet provides this father with a set of advice that he can tell his son that will help him throughout life. These instructions are life lessons that will help the son grow into a strong, self-sufficient person who can help bring change to the world.

Stanza 1-2

A father sees his son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
"Life is hard; be steel; be a rock."
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum monotony
and guide him among sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
"Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy."
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.

The poet says that a father sees his son nearing manhood and asks what he should tell that son. He wonders if the father should tell the son that life is hard and so he should be like steel or a rock. Being tough like steel or a rock will help the son stand against the storms of life, or make it through the difficulties that may come his way.

It will help him go through the humdrum monotony or the boring dullness that he might face in life. Being strong will also guide him to deal with sudden betrayals. It will tighten him for slack moments. Here, the son is subtly compared to a rope which needs to remain tight for usefulness. So, the steely personality of the son will help him stay productive and not go slack.

Then the poet presents an alternative to us. He wonders if the father should tell the son that life is like a soft loam or fertile soil, so he should be gentle and go easy. This too might serve the son well, because brutes have been gentled where lashes failed. This means that violence might not always have good results and gentleness is also required while raising a child.

Stanza 3-4

The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
and left them dead years before burial:
the quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
has twisted good enough men
sometimes into dry thwarted worms.

The growth of a frail flower in a path has sometimes shattered and split a rock. Therefore, there is great power to be found even in gentleness. In life, a tough will counts and so does a desire to succeed. A rich soft wanting for success is the most important thing because without want nothing arrives.

The poet instructs the father to tell his son that too much money has killed men and left them dead years before burial. The quest for money beyond a few necessary things has made many good men into disgusting creatures like dry thwarted worms. The father must therefore warn his son against the dangers of greed and money.

Stanza 5-7

Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use against other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.

The poet tells the father to tell his son that time is something that can be wasted, so he must spend his time wisely and carefully. But he should also be allowed to be a fool ever so often and have no shame over having been a fool.

So, the son must allow himself to make mistakes and not be ashamed of them. He should learn something from these mistakes and hope that he does not repeat them. This will help him understand that there are many fools in the world who do not grow from their mistakes. The father should tell him to be alone often and look into himself. Such introspection will help him understand himself better.

And no matter what white lies he tells the world to put up protective fronts for himself, he must never lie to himself about himself. He might use lies against other people to protect himself, but he should never lie to himself. The father should tell his son that solitude is creative if he is strong.

This means that inner strength brings creativity even if one is alone. Final decisions are made in silent rooms after a lot of thinking. The father should tell his son to be different from other people if it comes natural and easy being different. So, the son should not be afraid of being different from others if that is who he truly is. He must remain true to himself.

Stanza 8-9

Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.

The father should let the son have lazy days spent seeking his deeper motives. This will help him gain a better understanding of himself. He should let him seek deep for his natural talents. Then he might understand great men like Shakespeare, the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov and Michael Faraday, and their free imaginations. Only a better understanding of his own self will help him understand great men and their works.

The son will be someone bringing changes into a world resenting change. He will bring radical new ideas that will change the world. Going against a world that resents change might make him a lonely man because he will be shunned. However, this will only give him the time to do the work that he knows as his own. He will have the time and space to do the work that will help him fulfil his purpose.

Conclusion

The poem narrates what a father might want to tell his growing son to guide him through life. It provides us with moral lessons that can be very useful when applied to any of our lives. The poet’s advice will help us grow into people who can one day change the world in our own way.