Henry Wotton’s ‘The Character of a Happy Life’ describes the foundations of a happy life and what a person should avoid at all costs. The poem is about happiness, simplicity, joy, and religion.
In this poem, the speaker discusses what it takes to live well. For this speaker, happiness implies being self-sufficient and answerable solely to oneself and God. Those who get overly engaged in the views of others end up fighting for power and being damaged by the ups and downs of fortune. On the other hand, those who exercise integrity, humility, purity, and self-reliance gain a steady and “happy life.”
The speaker suggests that the first and most important virtue a man must have is independence- knowing that it’s not good knocking himself out trying to satisfy “another’s will,” worming his way into power through “flatter[y],” or obeying the “rules of state” when he understands they contradict the “rules of good.” To put it another way, a pleased man does not seek power at the price of his “conscience.” His moral conscience must be his constant guidance, and he must not abandon it for whatever reason. Below, you’ll find the full poem.
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!
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.
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