Poet's Pick April 29
Sir Walter Ralegh: "Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son"
Selected by Richard Tillinghast
National Poetry Month 2017

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Richard Tillinghast's Poetry Month Pick, April 29, 2017

"Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son"
by Sir Walter Ralegh (1552-1618)

Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman's bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
  Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
  We part not with thee at this meeting day.


* Richard Tillinghast Comments:
I don’t usually like sonnets—dislike the pre-arranged form, have never been able to write even a halfway decent one. But this sonnet, written in the sixteenth century by Sir Walter Ralegh, is one of my favorites. Ralegh had displeased Queen Elizabeth, was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and had reason to know that his young son was living a dissolute life right there in the capital, streets away from where Sir Walter sat in his cell. But since Ralegh was under lock and key, he was powerless to check his son’s wild behavior. This poem, taking the form of a witty and perfect sonnet, is a father’s advice to his son. In Elizabethan England, hanging was an all-too-common occurrence, and Ralegh père was afraid the life being led by his son, the young wag of the poem, would land him on the gallows tree, with the hangman’s hempen noose around his neck.

I love the coolness and dispatch of the poem—how Ralegh crisply evokes those three alliterative elements, “the wood, the weed, the wag,” and prays no evil fate will bring them together on the tragic “meeting day” he, as a worried father, fears will befall his son. The restrained formality of the poem holds the imprisoned man’s anxiety in check, and his poem proceeds briskly from quatrain to tight quatrain, rounding each one off nicely before going on to the next. History does not record, as far as I know, whether young Ralegh followed his father’s advice to mend his ways. We can only hope he did.

Richard Tillinghast:
Richard Tillinghast is the author of twelve books of poetry, including Selected Poems (2009) and Wayfaring Stranger (2012). In 2008 his third non-fiction book, Finding Ireland, was given ForeWord magazine's Best Book of the Year award for travel essays. Having taught at Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, he retired in 2005 and spent the next five years living in Ireland. He currently divides his time between Tennessee, Hawaii, and California.

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