‘The Life of Man‘ by Sir Francis Bacon is a two stanza poem that is divided into two sets of ten lines. Each of these parts discusses different facts in the “life of man,” the first concerns one’s physical presence and location while the second discusses families and children.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that the life of a man is less than the span of the world. One’s time is limited from the moment of birth. In fact, not only is one’s time-limited, but one will suffer through all the time they are given. Life will be filled with endless “cares and fears” none of which will matter in the end.
He continues on to ask that if one is going to live in the world, knowing full well that life will be a horror, what is the correct life to lead? A man could choose to spend his time with the “fools” in court, or decide to go out to the country with the “savage men” or attempt to find a city that is “vice…free.”
In the second half of the poem, the speaker discusses whether a man should choose to have a family or live his life single. By the end of this section he has come to the conclusion that although one might curse the fact, single life is better as children are a “pain.” In the final lines, the speaker puts all of these choices into perspective by reminding the reader that all of this is just leading to the grave.
Analysis of The Life of Man
The world’s a bubble; and the life of man less than a span.
In his conception wretched; from the womb so to the tomb:
Curst from the cradle, and brought up to years, with cares and fears.
Who then to frail mortality shall trust,
But limns the water, or but writes in dust.
Yet, since with sorrow here we live oppress’d, what life is best?
Courts are but only superficial schools to dandle fools:
The rural parts are turn’d into a den of savage men:
And where’s a city from all vice so free,
But may be term’d the worst of all the three?
The speaker begins this piece by introducing his first description of what the “life of man” is like. The poem will carry the reader through a number of different ways of understanding the potential of one life but the first compares the length one lives to the life of the world.
The speaker states that the span of a man’s life is “less than a span” of the “world’s bubble.” If one is able to imagine the world as having a tentative, fragile period of prosperity, man’s life is less than the length of that period. This is quite a grand way of saying that man will not live forever. In fact, from the moment of birth, one’s life is coming to a close. A man is born “wretched” and remains that way from “womb…to…tomb.” A human being is cursed, or “curst,” to live in the world and will carry through his or her life many, “cares and fears.”
The speaker turns to his listeners, and his readers, and states that, yes, man will live with “sorrow” all throughout life, so how is one to determine which life is the best to lead?
The poet moves the poem forward at this point to take in a few of the variety of ways that one could spend a lifetime. A man could choose to waste his days performing in “Court” with other nobles and “superficial …fools,” or one could enter the “rural” parts or “a city.” These two choices are interrelated as when a man finds himself in the country, he will be among the worst of humanity. It is here, the speaker says, that the “savage men” have gathered. He could then go to a city, but, the speaker asks, where is a city that is free of sin? No matter where one goes there will be negativity to greet him.
Domestic cares afflict the husband’s bed, or pains his head:
Those that live single, take it for a curse, or do things worse:
Some would have children; those that have them none; or wish them gone.
What is it then to have no wife, but single thralldom or a double strife?
Our own affections still at home to please, is a disease:
To cross the sea to any foreign soil, perils and toil:
Wars with their noise affright us: when they cease,
We are worse in peace:
What then remains, but that we still should cry,
Not to be born, or being born, to die.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker describes the types of living situations that a man might find himself in possession of at home. One’s “bed,” might become afflicted with “Domestic cares.” A marriage might be nice for a time, but soon the children will come, ruining the peace and pleasure of one’s bed, and causing “pains” in one’s head.
Alternatively, there is the option of “living single.” One might feel as if this path is a “curse,” but it is better than a great many other options, such as a life with children. The speaker describes how there are those who have chosen to have children and now that they have them, “wish them gone.”
In the final lines of the poem the speaker bounces back and forth between a life that is filled with peace, or war, foreign travel or time at home, and life and death. These are the biggest choices one faces in life and the poet has successfully represented them in his slightly frenzied shifting from one topic to another. So too works the mind of one conflicted. When there is war, one is horrified, but things are much “worse in peace.”
When all these choices have been made, what, he asks, is left? There is only the time “to die” when all is done.
About Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon was born in 1561 in London to a noble family. His father, also knighted, was Lord Keeper of the Seal, and his mother’s father was a tutor to Edward VI. Bacon began his education by attending Trinity College, Cambridge in 1573 when he was only 12 years old. After leaving there, he pursued a law degree at the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. It was here that he solidified his preference for Renaissance humanism.
Francis Bacon’s life soon turned for the worse as his father passed away, leaving him with little inheritance. In 1581 he acquired a job as a member for Cornwall in the House of Commons. With this income, he was able to complete his studies at Gray’s Inn. Bacon would hold his place in parliament for almost four decades. He was active in politics, as well as in the royal court.