‘Can life be a blessing’ is a brief poem that mulls over the value of love in the face of heartache brought on by a separation. Extracted from John Henry Dryden’s tragedy ‘Troilus and Cressida’ the poem is a lyrical encouragement to two young lovers, one that tries to reinforce their devotion to one another while also foreshadowing their eventual division.
Through his choice of diction and figurative language, the poet imparts an earnest reminder that pain is an intimate and unavoidable part of loving someone.
Can life be a blessing John Henry DrydenCan life be a blessing,Or worth the possessing,Can life be a blessing if love were away?Ah no! though our love all night keep us waking,And though he torment us with cares all the day,Yet he sweetens, he sweetens our pains in the taking,There's an hour at the last, there's an hour to repay.In ev'ry possessing,The ravishing blessing,In ev'ry possessing the fruit of our pain,Poor lovers forget long ages of anguish,Whate'er they have suffer'd and done to obtain;'Tis a pleasure, a pleasure to sigh and to languish,When we hope, when we hope to be happy again.
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‘Can life be a blessing’ by John Henry Dryden is a poem that encourages the heartsick to persevere in their love.
‘Can life be a blessing’ is a short poem that weighs the pros and cons of love. Is it truly worth pursuing and eventually possessing if it can be taken away or lost? The speaker seems to think so. Even if love creates anxieties and pain in its absence, all those troubles are assuaged the moment we are reunited with the object of our love.
In fact, the speaker even asserts that the time spent languishing over our heartache should never be forgotten. As it’s a reminder of how much we truly love the person we are pining for and hoping to see again.
‘Can life be a blessing’ comes from Dryden’s play ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ which itself was essentially a remake of a tragedy made famous by William Shakespeare. The poem appears in the play as a song sung by performers outside the room where lovers Troilus and Cressida enjoy a night of intimacy together, making shortsighted but sincerely impassioned promises of devotion to one another.
Yet unbeknownst to the ardent lovers, their separation has already been assured. Caught in the midst of the Trojan War, a trade is negotiated by Agammenom on behalf of Cressida’s father, Calchas (a Trojan turncoat who sides with the Greeks), for his daughter in exchange for a captive Trojan commander. The song/poem foreshadows their imminent separation and also serves to steel them against the anguish of it all — yet tragedy inevitably unfolds.
Structure and Form
‘Can life be a blessing’ is a poem composed of two stanzas with seven lines each. The rhyme scheme for the poem is AABABAB AACDCDC, which lends it a lyrical quality, an echo of the rhythm of the music it’s being sung to.
‘Can life be a blessing’ uses a variety of flowery diction and figurative language to convince the reader that love is worth innumerable pains. One of the first literary devices used is the rhetorical question that begins the poem: “Can life be a blessing if love were away?” (3) There are also plenty of metaphors used to describe both the tolerable afflictions of love and its rewards: the speaker idealizing it in claiming love “sweetens our pains” (6); it’s a “ravishing blessing” (8); and the “fruit of our pain” (10). Dryden also employs paradox when the speaker asserts that it’s “a pleasure to sigh and to languish” (13) when done in service to love.
Can life be a blessing,
Or worth the possessing,
Can life be a blessing if love were away?
Ah no! though our love all night keep us waking,
And though he torment us with cares all the day,
Yet he sweetens, he sweetens our pains in the taking,
There’s an hour at the last, there’s an hour to repay.
‘Can life be a blessing’ poses a rhetorical question in the opening lines of its first stanza: is life worth it without love? The speaker’s diction is also important — “away” (2) could have a variety of meanings ranging from enduring a long-distance relationship to death. In the context of Dryden’s play ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (a rework of William Shakespeare’s original), the poem is a song sung to encourage lovemaking between its titular lovers just a few hours before they’re inadvertently separated by the battle lines of the Trojan War.
As a result, it foreshadows their inevitable sundering. But it also advocates that even in the absence of love’s presence, it’s necessary to persevere. The speaker explains that love “sweetens our pains in the taking” (6) and that, in the end, whatever hurt is suffered in love’s absence is repaid when it returns.
In ev’ry possessing,
The ravishing blessing,
In ev’ry possessing the fruit of our pain,
Poor lovers forget long ages of anguish,
Whate’er they have suffer’d and done to obtain;
‘Tis a pleasure, a pleasure to sigh and to languish,
When we hope, when we hope to be happy again.
The second stanza of ‘Can life be a blessing’ continues to reassert that love is worth enduring any degree of sorrow. The diction also reflects an amplified attempt to persuade: love is now a “ravishing blessing” (9) that’s seen as the “fruit of our pain” (10). They even describe people who seek to “forget long ages of anguish” as “poor lovers” (11) because true lovers would savor the time spent earnestly pining for the moment they’d be reunited.
The last two lines encompass the poem’s central theme: that it’s better to feel heartache in missing someone than to have no one at all — or worse — to never have loved. The speaker affirms it’s “a pleasure to sigh and to languish” (13) if it means keeping alive a “hope to be happy again” (14).
The theme of the poem boils down to the speaker’s insistence that love is an ideal worth aspiring to and persevering for. They’re adamant about seeing any kind of pain endured because of it (no matter how minor or severe) as a pseudo-blessing because it’s nothing compared to truly not having someone to love. Even just the hope of seeing a loved one after being separated is enough to keep one going.
At first, it might be slightly difficult to orient yourself within the poem because of the ambiguity of the speaker. Are they a lover speaking about their own experiences? A hopeless romantic espousing their sentimental beliefs? In ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ the poem is actually sung by a musician with the goal of inciting passion between two young lovers. This context is helpful in viewing the poem as a ballad of encouragement to lovers in general and a reminder that it’s not always going to be a smooth ride through rosy fields with your beloved by your side.
Dryden wrote the poem as part of his rework of the tragedy ‘Troilus and Cressida.‘ Using it both to foreshadow and highlight the unfortunate fate of its two eponymous lovers.
- ‘Sonnet 18‘ by William Shakespeare – is a famous sonnet that slyly critiques the flowery diction of sonnets while fawning over another.
- ‘She Walks in Beauty’ by Lord Byron – is a poem devoted to praising the beauty of a woman seen by the speaker.
- ‘Why Do I Love You, Sir’ by Emily Dickinson – is a poem that attempts to outline all the reasons one loves God.