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‘Character of a Happy Life’ is a poem by Sir Henry Wotton. It is a poem that details on how leading a simple, honest life without the luxuries of the world can still provide happiness and the good graces of God.
About the Poet:
Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) is a seventeenth-century author/scholar. In addition to this, he was also a diplomat. Famous works of him include ‘The Character of a Happy Life’, ‘You Meaner Beauties of the Night’, and ‘A Hymn to my God’.
The poem revolves around the theme of simplicity and the subsequent contentment and joy received from leading a life in such a way. Being religious is also a recurring theme that can be found in the course of the poem.
This didactic poem is split into six stanzas. Each stanza consists of four lines, thus making it a quatrain. The rhyme scheme followed is a simple abab, cdcd, and so on and so forth.
How happy is he born and taught That serveth not another's will; Whose armour is his honest thought, And simple truth his utmost skill!
The poem begins with a reference to a ‘he’. The poet’s persona uses ‘he’ to elaborate on the key to a happy life throughout the entirety of the poem. The very first line of the poem states that ‘he’ would be a happy person if he is born and taught not to serve another, thus shunning the idea of slavery. The poem then goes on to state that ‘he’ would also be happy when he is honest and speaks nothing but the truth at all times.
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;
The poem continues to go on that ‘he’ would be happy if he doesn’t let his passions overwhelm him. ‘he’ would also be happy should he be removed from the fame and publicity the world has to offer and has a soul that accepts his imminent death.
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;
Again, the persona states that ‘he’ would be happy if he does not fall prey to jealousy of those who are graced with good fortunes and vile thoughts. ‘he’ is also said to be happy if he realises that praises too can wound a person deeply. The stanza ends with how ‘he’ would be happy if he follows rules of ‘good’, rather than ‘state’, thus giving predominance to morality and ethical values.
Who hath his life from rumours freed; Whose conscience is his strong retreat; Whose state can neither flatterers feed, Nor ruin make oppressors great;
The poem points out that ‘he’ would also be happy if he were to lead a life free of rumours and has a solid conscience he can turn to when in need. ‘he’ must also not fall prey to mindless flattery and must be cautious of ‘oppressors’ who seek to ‘ruin’ him and make themselves 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;
The list continues. ‘he’ would be happy in life were he religious and has strong faith in God. Again, his faith should be in such a way the he seeks God’s grace rather than the gifts he could provide. The stanza ends with a note on how ‘he’ would be a happy man if he spends a day with a religious book or his 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.
The final stanza wraps up everything the persona has laid out for a man to lead a happy life neatly. The persona proclaims that such a man who lives in the way this poem has taught would be free from servitude.
He would be unruffled by human trivialities as he would be one who neither hopes exceedingly nor has anything to fear. He would, simply put, be ‘Lord of himself’ but ‘not of lands’ meaning to say that despite not being rich, he would be the master of himself, not anyone else. The poem concludes with how he, whom would have nothing, is truly the one who has everything in life.
The poem lays out on how a man should live to lead a happy life. It states how joy is found only in simple things in life and how happiness cannot indeed be bought but rather, experienced.