16 pages • 32 minutes readPeter Meinke
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One of the more overlooked themes of “Advice to My Son” is the complex way in which humans negotiate time, and by extension, mortality. On a close reading, the poem is suffused by this conundrum. The very first line considers how to live “one’s days.” The word “days” immediately conjures up a sense of one’s time being borrowed and limited, measured in days. Yet even though all lives are finite and temporal, time runs fast or slow depending on the particular circumstances. While the bulk of life, with its mundane, practical activities like work, domestic matters, child-raising, and gardening—all of which the poem either directly or indirectly mentions—passes slowly, some phases seem to whiz past. Sometimes, death overtakes life, as in the case of youth abruptly interrupted by the violence of accidents and wars.
Even for the majority of folks who make it to the middle of life, the scepter of time’s unpredictability looms large. That is why the speaker advises the son to prepare for both summer and winter, symbolizing the sunny and umbral phases of life. Though the blush of love briefly frees one of time’s chains, the speaker advises the son to “marry a pretty girl / after meeting her mother” (Lines 17-18) so as to better predict the girl’s—and the son’s own—future.