|What do you think of when you read the name Hemingway?|
No matter what came to mind, you probably didn’t think “poet.” Though not nearly as popular as his prose, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) wrote a significant amount of poetry. Similar to his style of prose, his poetry also employs his curt, simple, expressive style. They contain more humour, more quips, and sometimes (if you can believe it) even more macabre sombreness than his novels. His poetry gives us a very personal insight into the man as he was. And none feel more personal than the poem we will read today: Advice to a Son. Reading as if Hemingway himself is our father, the poem serves as his reflection on the life that he led, contemplating his mistakes so that we may avoid them.
The poem shares humorous advice, deep admonitions and powerful aphorisms (Word of the day: a pithy statement or expression that reveals a profound truth).
Read on, O child of Hemingway:
|Never trust a white man,|
Never kill a Jew,
Never sign a contract,
Never rent a pew.
Don’t enlist in armies;
Nor marry many wives;
Never write for magazines;
Never scratch your hives.
Always put paper on the seat,
Don’t believe in wars,
Keep yourself both clean and neat,
Never marry whores.
Never pay a blackmailer,
Never go to law,
Never trust a publisher,
Or you’ll sleep on straw.
All your friends will leave you
All your friends will die
So lead a clean and wholesome life
And join them in the sky.
|After having read the poem, you may find that it feels almost musical.|
Hemingway is using a style of verse called the ballad stanza which pairs couplets with a line containing six, seven or eight syllables, followed by a line that is always five syllables. Read consistently, you feel as if you’re swinging from line to line; bouncing back and forth.
The only line in which he breaks this rhythm is the final line: and join them in the sky…
This disruption of motion is what makes the poem end so powerfully; it feels as if you’ve been running alongside Hemingway through a grassy plain, then stopping abruptly, and having to stare over a cliff’s edge.
The poem starts out irreverently — don’t trust a white man, never kill a Jewish one.
Then it takes a turn: Hemingway offers us advice that isn’t incredibly serious but indicates his underlying ideology nonetheless — never sign a contract (never be a slave to another man).
Now he becomes even more serious: never pay for religion (do not be fooled by a deceptive system). He tells us not to succumb to dangerous ideologies that will lead to unnecessary violence (don’t enlist in armies). This was something which Hemingway was very familiar with.
He tells us to search for that one true and pure love; not to rush into marriage. Perhaps he hopes that we may learn from his mistakes — He was married 4 times.
Next, he gives us some every-day advice which is much too specific not to be anecdotal…
Don’t write for magazines, don’t scratch your hives, always put paper on the toilet seat.
And he makes a diametric shift Don’t believe in wars.
“Don’t believe in wars.” Preceded by such commonplace advice, this one feels like a punch in the gut. Hemingway stops joking around to reiterate a point he already brought up: the tragedy of war.
Something which he strove for his entire life — illustrating the complete needlessness of war in our world. He himself was involved in many wars as a journalist–WW1, WWII, the Spanish civil war and the Greco-Turkish War. He then says: Never succumb to the demands of a blackmailer! Stand your ground always! Never have the court settle your debates; settle them yourself!
My favourite line is the following because it’s the only one in which he explains exactly WHY we shouldn’t do this thing. Before this he has listed only causes and not their effects:
Never trust a publisher or you’ll sleep on straw.
He seems to say in this one line: No one is a higher authority in regards to your work, your life, your soul, than you! And if you forget that, you’ll suffer the consequences; that is the power of Hemingway. He says so much without saying much at all.
He ends on a dark but hopeful note.
Everything in this life ends, including life itself. But don’t let that stop you from truly enjoying what you have! So live how you will and I’ll see your spirit in the sky when you’re done!
Never trust a publisher, dear Examiners! I’ll join you in the sky when we’re done.
The Golden Scribe