By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we’ve offered five of the best poems for daughters, so now it’s the turn of the male offspring. Below are five of the finest poems about sons – ranging from the humorous to the moving, the personal to the universal.
Many famous poets have also been mothers or fathers to sons, and sometimes they have written about their children in poems that have become classics in English literature. Sometimes they write about the idea of ‘sons’ in a more abstract or general sense (see Kipling’s poem below). But they’re all worth reading – here they are.
Ben Jonson, ‘On My First Son’.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,
Seven yeeres thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the fate he should envíe?
To have so soon scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Jonson (1572-1637) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and, like the Bard, wrote poems as well as the plays for which he is well-known. Ben Jonson’s short poem for his son Benjamin, who died aged seven, is one of the most moving short elegies in the English language. As well as being a rather moving poem, ‘On My First Son’ is one of the greatest poems about sons in all of English literature.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Prodigal Son’.
Referring to the parable told by Jesus in the New Testament, this Kipling poem appears in one of the chapters of Kipling’s novel Kim:
My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
And, in spite of the butler’s gravity,
I know that the servants have it I
Am a monster of moral depravity,
And I’m damned if I think it’s fair!
I wasted my substance, I know I did,
On riotous living, so I did,
But there’s nothing on record to show I did
Worse than my betters have done.
They talk of the money I spent out there –
They hint at the pace that I went out there –
But they all forget I was sent out there
Alone as a rich man’s son.
W. B. Yeats, ‘A Prayer for My Son’.
Bid a strong ghost stand at the head
That my Michael may sleep sound,
Nor cry, nor turn in the bed
Till his morning meal come round;
And may departing twilight keep
All dread afar till morning’s back.
That his mother may not lack
Her fill of sleep.
Bid the ghost have sword in fist:
Some there are, for I avow
Such devilish things exist,
Who have planned his murder, for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days,
And would through hatred of the bays
Bring that to nought…
So begins this moving poem by one of the twentieth century’s most influential poets, written about his son when Michael was still an infant (‘You have lacked articulate speech / To tell Your simplest want’). Follow the link above to read the full poem.
Langston Hughes, ‘Mother to Son’.
Probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1901-67) adopts the maternal voice for this short poem, expressing the views of an African American mother as she addresses her son, telling him that life has been hard for her but that the important thing is to keep climbing and not to turn back.
Judith Viorst, ‘Some Advice From A Mother To Her Married Son’.
Viorst (b. 1931) offers a humorous poem for a son getting married here, speaking as one woman who understands what it is like to have been married to a man and wants to ensure that her son and new daughter-in-law have a happy life together. As Viorst concludes here, three times: ‘The answer is yes.’ The answer, son, is always ‘yes’.
For more classic poetry, we also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.