Throughout the poem, the persona uses strong language when he is speaking. It is almost as if he wants to frighten his addressee. The comfortable atmosphere that is expected when one is at home talking to one's parents is not evident here. There are no soft gentle tones, or kind words of encouragement. Instead, there is this gruesome display of harsh, brutal language, and eccentric commands. It is almost frightening how the addressee is expected to obtain such warrior-like qualities in his quest for manhood.
He is supposed to "slash", "fight", use "force", and "be savage". The poet, in his choice of words, inadvertently reveals his belief in the qualities that a 'real man' should possess. The persona continues his harshness in the command, "Go wade like the crane." It is difficult to imagine why someone would tell another person, under any circumstances, to "go wade like the crane", but it is possible that the poet is alluding to the aggressive nature of the crane. The crane is a very intrepid bird with elaborate courting displays. Cranes are also known for their pride, as they fly with their necks outstretched rather than pulled back.
The poet also uses vivid imagery throughout the poem to contribute to its theme. He creates a stormy atmosphere with the "force of the wind" and the "slash of the rain". He, then, equates going "hungry and cold" with masculinity. The persona apparently associates being masculine with being a savage beast. Incidentally, he instructs the addressee to become animalistic and obtain certain qualities of a "wolf". In order to be clearly understood, the persona informs the addressee that becoming a man will be no easy task. He will encounter obstacles along the way. There will be times when his "palms will thicken" and "the skin of his cheek will tan". It is easy to picture a bloody, dirty, exhausted man returning from war in the line, "You'll grow ragged and weary and swarthy."
He may get battered and bruised, but he must persevere because the juice of this prize is worth the squeeze he must execute.
The poet also contributes to the theme through his use of poetic metre. Unlike the flowery, feminine traits of iambic pentametre, common in sonnets, the poem consists of only dimetre (lines containing two feet) and trimetre (lines containing three feet). All of the lines in the poem are short and abrupt. The metre helps to create the sense of rigidity that is implied in the tone of the poem. Lines three and seven of the poem contain amphibrach foot. Amphibrach is a Greek word meaning short on either side. The poet suggests, through metric foot, that the addressee should not be cowardly, but fight back. All of the lines in the poem, with the exception of line three, contain anapestic foot. Anapest is a Greek word meaning struck back.
The persona in the poem teaches a valuable lesson about embracing one's fears and subsequently overcoming them. Nothing is promised in life, and anything that is worth having is worth the struggle necessary to obtain it. It is important to understand that the challenge does not lie in never being in fear, but in learning that fear can be conquered. It will not always be easy and it may sometimes seem impossible. However challenging and tiring it may seem, one must persevere. The gratification one gets is summed up best in the lines,
You'll grow ragged and weary and swarthy,
But you'll walk like a man.