Rather than focusing on social or political nobility, this poem dives into true nobility and what it takes to live a good life. The poet focuses on a few specific examples but spends most of the poem talking broadly about life, being kind to others, and how all that kindness will be returned in due time.
Nobility Alice CaryTrue worth is in being, not seeming,— In doing, each day that goes by, Some little good—not in dreamingOf great things to do by and by. For whatever men say in their blindness,And spite of the fancies of youth,There’s nothing so kingly as kindness,And nothing so royal as truth.We get back our mete as we measure—We cannot do wrong and feel right, Nor can we give pain and gain pleasure,For justice avenges each slight. The air for the wing of the sparrow,The bush for the robin and wren,But always the path that is narrowAnd straight, for the children of men.‘Tis not in the pages of story The heart of its ills to beguile, Though he who makes courtship to gloryGives all that he hath for her smile. For when from her heights he has won her,Alas! it is only to prove That nothing’s so sacred as honor,And nothing so loyal as love!We cannot make bargains for blisses,Nor catch them like fishes in nets; And sometimes the thing our life missesHelps more than the thing which it gets.For good lieth not in pursuing,Nor gaining of great nor of small, But just in the doing, and doingAs we would be done by, is all.Through envy, through malice, through hating,Against the world, early and late.No jot of our courage abatingOur part is to work and to waitAnd slight is the sting of his troubleWhose winnings are less than his worth.For he who is honest is nobleWhatever his fortunes or birth.
‘Nobility’ by Alice Cary is a powerful and inspiring poem about how best to live life.
The poem starts with the speaker noting that nobility does not come from wealth. Instead, it comes from the way one lives and treats others. It’s essential to live a life focused on helping those around you, as kindness will always be returned. One must stay on the straight and narrow path of a good, moral life. The poem concludes with the speaker saying that nobility and honor are gained as one lives this kind of life.
Structure and Form
‘Nobility’ by Alice Cary is a five-stanza poem divided into uneven stanzas. The first stanza has six lines, the second: ten lines, the third: eight, the fourth: eight, and the fifth: eight. The poem’s rhyme scheme mostly ignores stanza breaks, following a pattern of ABABCDCD. No matter how many lines there are in a stanza, it follows the same alternate rhyme scheme.
In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. For example:
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Nor catch them like fishes in nets.”
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line of verse. This is usually created through punctuation but might also appear when one uses a metrical pattern. For example, “Some little good—not in dreaming.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, for example, “kingly as kindness” in stanza two.
True worth is in being, not seeming,—
In doing, each day that goes by,
Some little good—not in dreaming
Of great things to do by and by.
For whatever men say in their blindness,
And spite of the fancies of youth.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by noting that there is a difference between something seeming valuable and being valuable. One’s true worth is based on truth, not on appearances. It’s important, for one’s worth, to every day do “Some little good.” One can’t dream about it or make false promises. One has to get out and accomplish something for the betterment of others.
There’s nothing so kingly as kindness,
And nothing so royal as truth.
We get back our mete as we measure—
We cannot do wrong and feel right,
Nor can we give pain and gain pleasure,
For justice avenges each slight.
The air for the wing of the sparrow,
The bush for the robin and wren,
But always the path that is narrow
And straight, for the children of men.
When speaking about nobility or one’s honor/worth, the speaker describes the noblest thing one can do is be kind. There is nothing “so kingly as kindness,” the poet wrote. This alliterative phrase stands out from its surrounding lines and works as a very successful summary of the poem’s meaning.
The poet spends the next few lines providing readers with contrasts that outline how one should behave in day-to-day life. The speaker says that one cannot act cruelly and expect kindness in return. In the same way, they add that “justice avenges each slight,” meaning that one can expect to get what one put out into the world. If one does something wrong, it’ll come back to bite them.
The last lines of this stanza refer to an age-old adage, walking the straight and narrow path. This phrase is meant to inspire and remind whoever is listening how important it is to stay on a good and moral path through life and not stray from that metaphorical path.
‘Tis not in the pages of story
The heart of its ills to beguile,
Though he who makes courtship to glory
Gives all that he hath for her smile.
For when from her heights he has won her,
Alas! it is only to prove
That nothing’s so sacred as honor,
And nothing so loyal as love!
In the next stanza, the speaker speaks about love and giving one’s all for “her smile.” There are certain things the speaker is suggesting that are worth spending one’s time on. They are summarized in the stanza’s final lines as “honor” and “love.” These are two integral parts of life that one must respect and hopefully attain to live well.
We cannot make bargains for blisses,
Nor catch them like fishes in nets;
And sometimes the thing our life misses
Helps more than the thing which it gets.
For good lieth not in pursuing,
Nor gaining of great nor of small,
But just in the doing, and doing
As we would be done by, is all.
The fourth stanza is quite simple, directing readers to what they can and cannot do to improve their lives. One can’t make a “bargain” and attain “bliss” or barter their way into happiness. It’s also not possible to “catch” happiness or bliss as one might catch a fish (this is an example of a simile).
The speaker makes another very clear and well-said point in the following lines when they add that sometimes what one gets out of life, even if it’s not what one wants, is what one needs. It may help to miss or want something.
The next lines say that when one gets something, it’s not nearly as important as what it takes to get there. This is a different way of suggesting another commonly shared motivational quote; it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important.
Through envy, through malice, through hating,
Against the world, early and late.
No jot of our courage abating
Our part is to work and to wait
And slight is the sting of his trouble
Whose winnings are less than his worth.
For he who is honest is noble
Whatever his fortunes or birth.
In the final stanza, the speaker concludes the poem by describing the cruel ways people treat one another and the negative emotions they exhibit, like envy, malice, and hate. These are things that are capable of destroying the world. Someone who wants to live a good life needs to take their days into their own hands, help those around them, and have faith that their station will improve no matter their situation when they were born.
The tone of ‘Nobility’ is direct and explanatory. The speaker teaches readers, or a specific listener, what it takes to live a good life. They are very confident in their assertions of morality.
The theme of this poem is what it takes to live a good, honorable, and “noble” life. It is not one’s money or social status that controls how one’s life plays out; it’s how you treat others throughout your life that determines how well you’re going to live.
The poem aims to remind readers of a few basics regarding what a good, moral life looks like (to the poet, anyway). They’re very sure that helping others and caring about those around you is a good that will be returned.
‘Nobility’ is an inspirational, five-stanza poem that follows an alternate rhyme scheme. The poem is relatively straightforward to read.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poetry. For example:
- ‘What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe – is a beautiful poem about contemporary life and what it is the living do.
- ‘Living in Sin’ by Adrienne Rich – a deeply evocative poem about a woman’s exceptions and reality.
- ‘Your One Good Dress’ by Brenda Shaughnessy – is a compelling, symbolic poem about choosing the right dress.