Featured Poem: The Character of a Happy Life by Sir Henry Wotton

I’d like to begin this week’s featured poem post by asking a question: what is your motto for life? By that, I mean is there one quote or piece of information, literary-inspired or otherwise, which sums up in capsule, nutshell form your outlook on almost everything (and helps to give you some perspective when it all gets a little too chaotic or topsy-turvy, which can be frequently)? For me, there are too many; my philosophy has been cobbled together from many different snippets and sources. I have become slightly preoccupied with soundbites, one-liners and mini-mantras over the past year or so, so much so that I have bought a notebook especially to keep store of the collection of quotes I have amassed.

I don’t know exactly where it began, this predilection for pithy philosophies…perhaps I can trace it back to a present I received two birthdays ago, which linked in to my love of literature and reading. Something really quite simple, not in the least extravagant, but probably the present that gave me the most delight at the time and continues to do so. What was it? A sheet of fridge magnets containing a range of quotations from the supreme master of wit and wisdom himself, Oscar Wilde. Each one just as brilliant as the next, and firmly placed within the top of my most favoured quotes (my personal favourites are “The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray” and owing to my disposition as a creature of the night “Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”). Guaranteed to bring a smile to my face each time I reach for a drink or handy snack. Since then, I have been bought or otherwise bought myself items that feature life-affirming sayings of phrases, including a cushion that adorns my bedspread which reads “Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much” and on the wall next to that, a framed picture that contains what is quite possibly my overriding, one-size-fits-every-situation mantra: “Keep Calm and Carry On”, the slogan actually never used by the Ministry of Information at the outbreak of World War II but has gone on to gain such great resonance in modern times (I certainly can never imagine tiring or indeed having little need to use it). I also possess a day-to-day calendar which every 6 days or so features a new quote to feast upon and ponder. They don’t always have to contain some earth-shattering, thought-provoking philosophy; indeed, it can be often better if they’re just simply silly or do nothing more than provoke a chuckle, as what is life without a lot of light relief?

In terms of poetry, I’ve always found one poem in particular to be defining when attempting to describe the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of life and how best to deal with them; If by Rudyard Kipling. A poem in a similar vein – perhaps somewhat idealistic, but a ‘checklist’ if you will for a fulfilling life – one which predates Kipling’s most famed work by several centuries is The Character of a Happy Life by Sir Henry Wotton. The poem succinctly summarises the formula for a happy life, with the founding principle of it being freedom. Freedom from being dictated by others; freedom from the more often than not negative ‘passions’ that chip away at us, such as greed, envy or anger; freedom from wanting material possessions and the impositions of society. For a poem first published in the 1600s it appears quite prescient, especially when you consider the lines ‘The deepest wounds are given by praise’ and ‘Whose state can neither flatterers feed’, which to me says a lot about the fleeting and unsustainable happiness that is provided by the rather soulless talent or ‘reality’ television shows to those who want their quick-fix of fame and some space in a celebrity magazine. No, instead the ingredients for a happy life are as follows; a capacity for ‘honest thought’ and ‘simple truth’, a lack of expectation but instead a graciousness for whatever comes your way, clarity of conscience, a healthy dose of scepticism, the company of good friends and a ‘well-chosen book’. It sounds pretty good to me.

The Character of a Happy Life

How happy is he born or taught
That serveth not another’s will,
Whose armor is his honest thought,
And simple truth his highest skill;

Whose passions not his masters are;
Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Untied unto the world with care
Of princes’ grace or vulgar breath;

Who envies none whom chance doth raise,
Or vice; who never understood
The deepest wounds are given by praise,
By rule of state but not of good;

Who hath his life from rumours freed,
Whose conscience is his strong retreat,
Whose state can neither flatterers feed
Nor ruins make accusers great;

Who God doth late and early pray
More of his grace than goods to send,
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend.

This man is free from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall,
Lord of himself, though not of lands,
And having nothing, yet hath all.

Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639)

0 thoughts on “Featured Poem: The Character of a Happy Life by Sir Henry Wotton”

  1. I recoginised the first two verses of this poem, but not the rest. I then remembered that it was made into a hymn (number 524 in Songs of Praise) which we used to sing at school.
    The hymn misses out verses 3 and 4. It also changes the last 2 lines of verse 5 to
    ‘And walks with man from day to day
    As with a brother and a friend.’,which I think is a shame.

  2. Your version includes several erroneous changes made by later I-know-best editors. The correct version as penned by the author himself should read:

    How happy is he born or taught
    That serveth not another’s will,
    Whose armour is his honest thought,
    And simple truth his utmost skill!

    Whose passions not his masters are;
    Whose soul is still prepared for death,
    Untied unto the world by care
    Of public fame or private breath;

    Who envies none that chance doth raise,
    Nor vice; who never understood
    How deepest wounds are given by praise;
    Nor rules of state, but rules of good;

    Who hath his life from rumours freed;
    Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
    Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
    Nor ruin make oppressors great;

    Who God doth late and early pray
    More of His grace than gifts to lend;
    And entertains the harmless day
    With a religious book or friend;

    This man is freed from servile bands
    Of hope to rise or fear to fall:
    Lord of himself, though not of lands,
    And having nothing, yet hath all.

    This is also a religious poem as verse 5 clearly indicates. Only by giving ouselves up to God can man be truly free of the tyranny of other men!

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