‘The Character of a Happy Life’ is a simple, straightforward poem in which Sir Henry Wotton sets out the principles of a good life and what a man should avoid at all costs. The poem addresses themes of happiness, joy, simplicity and religion.
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Summary of The Character of a Happy Life
‘The Character of a Happy Life’ by Sir Henry Wotton speaks on the minimal necessities of a happy life and how one may draw closer to God.
The poem takes the reader through the different attributes of a good and beneficial life. The speaker also addresses the things that one should avoid if they’re seeking to maintain happiness beyond the immediate. Some of the things to avoid include servitude, passion, and flatterers. In the end, it is only God and one’s own self that is needed to live purely and blissfully.
Structure of The Character of a Happy Life
‘The Character of a Happy Life’ by Sir Henry Wotton is a six stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Wotton also makes use of half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “happy” and “he” in line one and “early” and “feed” and “freed” in stanzas three and four.
Poetic Techniques in The Character of a Happy Life
Wotton utilizes several poetic techniques in ‘The Character of a Happy Life’. These include alliteration, repetition and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “flatterers feed” in the third line of the fourth stanza and “fear” and “fall” in line two of the sixth stanza.
Wotton also makes use of repetition or the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In this particular piece, words such as “rules” are repeated. Additionally, there is anaphora. This is another kind of repetition. This time of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For example, “Whose” in stanza two and stanza four.
Analysis of The Character of a Happy Life
How happy is he born or taught,That serveth not another’s will;Whose armour is his honest thought,And simple truth his utmost skill;
In the first stanza of ‘The Character of a Happy Life,’ the speaker begins with a simple statement. The old fashioned, poetic diction confuses the line slightly, but overall it is clear. He states that “he” who is born and learns immediately not to serve another human being is very happy. The theme of servitude reoccurs within the poem a number of times.
If “he” is going to be happy, he must have an “armour” of “honest thought”. His mind must be pure and the man must have a willingness to pursue truth at all costs. It is this basic, simple truth that is at the root of this generalized man’s life.
Whose passions not his masters are;Whose soul is still prepar’d for death,Untied unto the world by careOf public fame or private breath;
Continuing on into the second stanza of ‘The Character of a Happy Life’, Wotton rearranges the syntax of the next lines in order to more poetically describe how “he” should regard his passions. They shouldn’t be his masters. Then, the speaker tells the listener that one needs to remove themselves from the world of “public fame” if they want to really be prepared for 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;
A good and happy man will not envy those who by luck have had their statue raised. Nor will they indulge in vice. He believes that “rules” of good rather than rules of state should control one’s life. There is also a warning in these lines against praise and how it can corrupt one’s good intentions.
Who hath his life from rumours freed;
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
Nor ruin make oppressors great;
Similar principles are reiterated in the next lines of ‘The Character of a Happy Life’. The speaker says that a happy man will free himself from rumours and turn to his conscience when in doubt. The same man’s ego will not be corrupted by flatterers who come with praise. He also shouldn’t, and won’t, give in to oppressors who seek to “ruin” his soul.
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;
It does not take great skill or talent, the speaker adds in these lines of ‘The Character of a Happy Life,’ to live a happy life. It is only God’s grace that one needs, not his gifts, that will bring pleasure. A truly happy man can entertain himself with a friend or a “religious book”.
—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.
In the last stanza of ‘The Character of a Happy Life,’ the speaker returns to the themes of servitude and freedom. Because this man is free he does not have to worry about the disappearance or reemergence of fear or hope. These things do not bother him. All he needs is God and his own life to make him happy. He is “Lord of himself” and in control of all that he feels. The man has nothing, “yet hath all,” or everything.