A Father To His Son by Carl August Sandburg is a poem themed around a father giving worldly wisdom to his son as he reaches adulthood. The father is readying his son for the harsh world and giving him the handrails to lean on when the seas get rough. It is a poem giving advice and showing the love that a father has for his son.
The poem has 44 lines and is written in free verse. There is no specific structure, meter, or rhyme scheme. The poet, Sandburg, primarily writes in free verse and doesn’t usually follow a particular structure. He once commented, “If it jells into free verse, alright, if it jells into rhyme, alright”. He did not put a lot of weight into the need for an arrangement of lines or rhyme and focused more on the content.
A Father To His Son | Summary and Analysis
A Father To His Son | Analysis, Lines 1-10
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 poem is written from a perspective of a father but in the third person. It is not a direct narrative of a conversation between father and son, but instead, it is a list of things a father would tell his son as he grows older. He first wonders if it would be better to tell him to be stoic or to be gentle. Being hard and stoic would be useful, as it would give him strength to move past boring times, and confidence to discard those who treat him badly. The son is subtly compared to a rope, which needs to be tightened to maintain tension and usefulness. The steely personality of the son will tighten and be productive, without falling prey to going slack and being useless.
Now, life itself is compared to soft soil, which is an allusion to how one can sow seeds of hard work and reap the benefits that they deserve. Being gentle with oneself could serve a different purpose. It is not always structure and outward strength that is needed, and sometimes it is gentleness that helps someone develop, not pain. Violence is not always resolved by more violence, and sometimes rehabilitation would do the job better than torture.
Here, the poet uses metaphor in “Life is a soft loam”. Loam is fertile soil, and life is compared to fertile soil as people see the fruit of their passion of they put in the work.
The words “humdrum monotony” has a sort of repetitious cadence, which displays a sort of monotony itself. The sound of the words is descriptive of its content as the repeated sound lacks variety.
A Father To His Son | Analysis, Lines 11-20
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.
Being gentle does not mean being weak, as a flower can break through the rock as it grows. The willpower of a person is of the utmost importance, and the desire for growth and the will to succeed can lead to breaking through anything. This metaphor of a flower is used here to show how a person can grow and shatter the glass ceilings that may limit them. It is important to have a goal and strive toward it, so a rich wanting is needed. A “rich soft wanting” is a strong desire for success and growth, and this abundant wanting will take the son to great heights.
Yet, this desire should not devolve to pure want of money, and the father wants to tell him that the desire for a lot of money has led to the deaths of many. Money has killed men, but not always literally. They have lost any true goal or fervent purpose as they become enmeshed in the desire to be rich. So, they are left dead years before burial because they are now just vessels of income that do not achieve anything for themselves other than worldly gain. The need for easy money has twisted men and corrupted them. The money prevents them from real accomplishment and leaves them dry.
Strong imagery is used here, like in “…growth of a frail flower…shattered and split a rock” which suggests a clear image of a flower breaking through the hard rock to find its life in the sun. This is also seen in “the quest of lucre” as it shows a search for lucre, which is money that is usually earned in a distasteful way. It’s clear that these people search only for wealth, so much so that the ends justify the means.
Alliteration is used in “frail flower” and “sometimes shattered and split”.
A Father To His Son | Analysis, Lines 21-31
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool ever 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.
Time is not just some airy concept but is a physical thing that can be wasted. Time is precious and should not be taken lightly. This doesn’t mean that every moment should be serious and only goal-oriented, as it is important to make mistakes and learn from them. Fear of mistakes will do no good, and one should not be embarrassed to be seen as a fool. Yet, one should be ashamed to have been a fool and not learnt from the mistake. In essence, the son should give himself space for mishaps, but should not give himself any space to repeat them.
This fooling around and the consequent gain of experience will allow the son to discover on his own how many people get trapped in their folly, and never grow. He will understand deeply that there are many fools on this earth, and he will have to learn how to deal with them in his own way. The father also wants to tell him to take time to be alone, to introspect, to figure out what he needs to do in life.
Most importantly, regardless of whatever lies he tells the world about himself, he must never lie to himself. If he needs to portray an appearance different from reality, then so be it. However, he must not change his own reality and live within a web of lies. Introspection leads to growth, but it will be useless if one does not allow himself to see who he is. There is no gain in pretending around oneself, and the father urges his son to have a clear idea about who he is, without any fog or lie.
We can see that there is a repetition of “Tell him..” and this emphasizes that it is not a direct conversation between father and son, but more of a view from the sidelines as a father formulates the wisdom he would like to pass on to his son. It also brings to mind the question of why it isn’t a direct conversation and could mean that the father and son do not have a close relationship. So, the father cannot tell his son directly. He finds himself thinking of what he would like to say, and there he may regret the lack of relationship that stops him from being a presence in his son’s life.
A Father To His Son | Analysis, Lines 32-44
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.
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.
Being alone does not mean loneliness. With inner strength, this solitude sparks creativity and will allow the boy to discover what he wants. Good decisions are made in silence, after thinking it through, after having a full and proper understanding, and being calm. Silent rooms do not necessarily mean empty but could mean like-minded calm people who can think deeply and thoroughly. Final decisions are made with strength, composure, and conviction.
The son should be different from others, and should not follow the crowd, but only if this is what he naturally finds himself doing. There is no use in being different for the sake of being different. Everything that is done should have a purpose, and this difference should be followed if it is natural and easy, not contrived.
This natural desire should be explored, and he should take time to find out his true motives, wants, and what it is that naturally brings him joy. This will help him understand those who loved their natural talent so much that they went on to create something entirely new. This natural, raw talent should not lie dormant but should be sharpened and brought forth. Then he will understand great people like Shakespeare, Pasteur, and so on who pushed themselves to create what they knew they loved. The freedom of imagination and the strength of creativity in one man can lead to great things.
He should be a trailblazer, one who changes the world, even if the world doesn’t want to be changed. He has the power to make things new, to turn things on their head, to change the way the world works. The world resents change because it is more comfortable in a steady pace that works than with being innovative. He may be a person who will be shunned for doing the work that people resent and may find himself feeling lonely. This, however, will give him the time and the space to do the work he is called to.
This poem is full of wise words, ostensibly from a father who has gone through these experiences and wants to advise his son on the right way to go. He does not force his opinions, though, and is loving, understanding, and gentle. He knows not to be afraid of finding oneself alone, of being different, of being new. Finding and following a purpose is the best thing a person can do throughout their life and seeing the fruit of their passion will make it worth it.
A Father To His Son | About the Author
Carl Sandburg was born on 6 January 1898, in Illinois.
He was a poet, editor, journalist, and biographer who wrote mainly about the ‘American Spirit’ and the simple things in life. His work was greatly influenced by Walt Whitman, and Sandburg was seen as an important figure in contemporary literature in his time.
About Sandburg, President Lyndon B. Johnson said “Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.” Sandburg has won 3 Pulitzer Prizes as well as the Robert Frost Medal (1952).
He admired President Lincoln and spent years collecting material to write a biography of him. Sandburg wrote and published a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, titled “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” which were 2 volumes published in 1926, and “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” which were 4 volumes published in 1939. These are widely acclaimed as the most influential books about President Lincoln.
a father to his son