Character of the Happy Warrior

William Wordsworth

‘Character of the Happy Warrior’ by William Wordsworth is a poem about what it means to be a “happy warrior” and what the elements of this kind of person’s life would be. 

William Wordsworth

Nationality: England

William Wordsworth is one of the most renowned and influential Romantic poets.

He was England's Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: A good life is one lived in God's name

Themes: Immortality

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Confidence

Poetic Form: Block Form

Time Period: 19th Century

Wordsworth asserts that happy warriors, like Lord Nelson, care more for God and their own mortality than they do fame or power

Many believe that the term “happy warrior” originated with Wordsworth’s publication of this poem. ‘Character of the Happy Warrior‘ was composed in 1806 after the death of Lord Nelson, an important military leader in British history. The poem was published the next year, in 1807, and it has been quoted in important speeches, including during presidential inaugurations. 

Character of the Happy Warrior
William Wordsworth

Who is the happy Warrior? Who is heThat every man in arms should wish to be?—It is the generous Spirit, who, when broughtAmong the tasks of real life, hath wroughtUpon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:Whose high endeavours are an inward lightThat makes the path before him always bright;Who, with a natural instinct to discernWhat knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,But makes his moral being his prime care;Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!Turns his necessity to glorious gain;In face of these doth exercise a powerWhich is our human nature's highest dower:Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereavesOf their bad influence, and their good receives:By objects, which might force the soul to abateHer feeling, rendered more compassionate;Is placable—because occasions riseSo often that demand such sacrifice;More skilful in self-knowledge, even more pure,As tempted more; more able to endure,As more exposed to suffering and distress;Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.—'Tis he whose law is reason; who dependsUpon that law as on the best of friends;Whence, in a state where men are tempted stillTo evil for a guard against worse ill,And what in quality or act is bestDoth seldom on a right foundation rest,He labours good on good to fix, and owesTo virtue every triumph that he knows:—Who, if he rise to station of command,Rises by open means; and there will standOn honourable terms, or else retire,And in himself possess his own desire;Who comprehends his trust, and to the sameKeeps faithful with a singleness of aim;And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in waitFor wealth, or honours, or for worldly state;Whom they must follow; on whose head must fall,Like showers of manna, if they come at all:Whose powers shed round him in the common strife,Or mild concerns of ordinary life,A constant influence, a peculiar grace;But who, if he be called upon to faceSome awful moment to which Heaven has joinedGreat issues, good or bad for human kind,Is happy as a Lover; and attiredWith sudden brightness, like a Man inspired;And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the lawIn calmness made, and sees what he foresaw;Or if an unexpected call succeed,Come when it will, is equal to the need:—He who, though thus endued as with a senseAnd faculty for storm and turbulence,Is yet a Soul whose master-bias leansTo homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes;Sweet images! which, wheresoe'er he be,Are at his heart; and such fidelityIt is his darling passion to approve;More brave for this, that he hath much to love:—'Tis, finally, the Man, who, lifted high,Conspicuous object in a Nation's eye,Or left unthought-of in obscurity,—Who, with a toward or untoward lot,Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not—Plays, in the many games of life, that oneWhere what he most doth value must be won:Whom neither shape or danger can dismay,Nor thought of tender happiness betray;Who, not content that former worth stand fast,Looks forward, persevering to the last,From well to better, daily self-surpast:Who, whether praise of him must walk the earthFor ever, and to noble deeds give birth,Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame,And leave a dead unprofitable name—Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;And, while the mortal mist is gathering, drawsHis breath in confidence of Heaven's applause:This is the happy Warrior; this is heThat every man in arms should wish to be.
Character of the Happy Warrior by William Wordsworth


Summary 

Character of the Happy Warrior’ by William Wordsworth is an inspirational poem about what it means to live a good, successful life. 

The poet uses the long lines of this poem to outline what it means to inspire those around you, live successfully, and be directed by a strong, inner light. The lines allude to the life and accomplishments of Lord Nelson, but they could refer to anyone. The poet never uses a specific name, place, or title. This means that anyone, not only a military leader, could be referred to as a happy warrior. 

Structure and Form 

Character of the Happy Warrior’ by William Wordsworth is an eighty-five-line poem that is contained within a single block of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on. The poet also uses a number of literary devices like caesura, alliteration, enjambment, and repetition in order to provide the poem with a feeling of rhythm and structure. 

In addition to these literary devices, the poet uses the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. This means that the entire structure of the poem can be referred to as heroic couplets

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. These include: 

  • Rhetorical Question: a question to which the speaker does not expect an answer. The poet begins this poem with two such questions. 
  • Allusion: this poem alludes to the life and accomplishments of Lord Nelson. But, at the same time, it’s meant to inspire all those who want to live a good life. 
  • Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line of verse. This might occur through the use of punctuation or because of a natural pause in the meter


Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-9

  Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he

That every man in arms should wish to be?

—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought

Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought

Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought:

Whose high endeavours are an inward light

That makes the path before him always bright;

Who, with a natural instinct to discern

What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;

In these lines of this famous William Wordsworth poem, the speaker asks rhetorical questions. These are questions to which he does not expect to receive an answer. Instead, they’re meant to inspire the reader to think about a subject. In this case, he wants readers to contemplate what it means to be a happy warrior.

Before providing any details, Wordsworth says that the happy warrior is a model that all soldiers, or men in arms, should want to follow. This person is generous, hard-working, and indulges his “boyish thought.” 

The happy warrior wants the best for those around him and guides his life based on inner light.

Lines 10-18 

Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,

But makes his moral being his prime care;

Who, doomed to go in company with Pain,

And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train!

Turns his necessity to glorious gain;

In face of these doth exercise a power

Which is our human nature’s highest dower:

Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves

Of their bad influence, and their good receives:

The poet says that the main focus of the happy warrior is his moral well-being. It is his “prime care.” Because of this, he never goes wrong on the path of life. Whenever a happy warrior faces a challenge, Wordsworth continues, this type of warrior subdues that challenge and its negative qualities. They also make sure to learn from whatever conflict they face or receive “good” from their “bad influence.” 

Lines 19-30 

By objects, which might force the soul to abate

Her feeling, rendered more compassionate;

Is placable—because occasions rise

So often that demand such sacrifice;

More skilful in self-knowledge, even more pure,

As tempted more; more able to endure,

As more exposed to suffering and distress;

Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.

—’Tis he whose law is reason; who depends

Upon that law as on the best of friends;

Whence, in a state where men are tempted still

To evil for a guard against worse ill,

In the lines, Wordsworth uses complicated and poetic language in order to suggest that a happy warrior is “skillful in self-knowledge.” This means that this type of person knows themself very well and can therefore judge all situations based on their own knowledge of how they will react or best benefit.

Happy warriors are just and fair. They depend on the law and reason when they need guidance.

Lines 31-42 

And what in quality or act is best

Doth seldom on a right foundation rest,

He labours good on good to fix, and owes

To virtue every triumph that he knows:

—Who, if he rise to station of command,

Rises by open means; and there will stand

On honourable terms, or else retire,

And in himself possess his own desire;

Who comprehends his trust, and to the same

Keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;

And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait

For wealth, or honours, or for worldly state;

If a happy warrior achieves a high, powerful station, this person will have done so honestly and with virtue. A happy warrior would not want to hold any such a position if they did not come by it honestly. They are as humble as they are great. Happy warriors have a singular focus on their moral well-being and the well-being of others and are, therefore, not tempted by the negative forces in the world and will not stoop or lie.

Lines 43-54

Whom they must follow; on whose head must fall,

Like showers of manna, if they come at all:

Whose powers shed round him in the common strife,

Or mild concerns of ordinary life,

A constant influence, a peculiar grace;

But who, if he be called upon to face

Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined

Great issues, good or bad for human kind,

Is happy as a Lover; and attired

With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired;

And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the law

In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw;

The poet notes that someone who is a happy warrior is not only shining with spectacular morality in their greatest moments. Throughout their everyday life, they convey an important presence that inspires those around them. This type of person has a “peculiar grace” that stands out among others. This is something that’s likely quite inspiring and helps drive others towards a similar life. 

The poet also adds that the happy warrior is “happy as a Lover,” meaning they do not need to seek out war or conflict in order to be happy. This person also keeps the law, stays calm, and remains as good-hearted a person as he’s always been. A happy warrior doesn’t let negativity corrupt them. 

Lines 55-67 

Or if an unexpected call succeed,

Come when it will, is equal to the need:

—He who, though thus endued as with a sense

And faculty for storm and turbulence,

Is yet a Soul whose master-bias leans

To homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes;

Sweet images! which, wheresoe’er he be,

Are at his heart; and such fidelity

It is his darling passion to approve;

More brave for this, that he hath much to love:—

‘Tis, finally, the Man, who, lifted high,

Conspicuous object in a Nation’s eye,

Or left unthought-of in obscurity,—

No matter what task the happy warrior is called upon to face, they succeed. They do so with the peculiar grace that they are known for. A happy warrior is always equal to that which they face. The happy warrior is not looking for world acclaim, riches, or power. They aspire towards “homefelt pleasures and gentle scenes. They carry sweet images within their heart no matter what they’re doing. Happy warriors see the good in everything and are capable of loving that “good” no matter what they’re doing. 

Lines 68-76

Who, with a toward or untoward lot,

Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not—

Plays, in the many games of life, that one

Where what he most doth value must be won:

Whom neither shape or danger can dismay,

Nor thought of tender happiness betray;

Who, not content that former worth stand fast,

Looks forward, persevering to the last,

From well to better, daily self-surpast:

The happy warrior also knows, as the previous section began to suggest, that no matter what he has accomplished, he can always do more. There is no pinnacle to his success, and he always strives to better himself. He will not be happy even with the great esteem of history.

Lines 77-85

Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth

For ever, and to noble deeds give birth,

Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame,

And leave a dead unprofitable name—

Finds comfort in himself and in his cause;

And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws

His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:

This is the happy Warrior; this is he

That every man in arms should wish to be.

Fame is not important to the happy warrior, Wordsworth says. He wants nothing more than to shine in God’s eyes. It is this kind of esteem that’s worth the most in a happy warrior’s eyes.

The happy warrior finds comfort in himself, his morals, and his cause and will have heaven’s approval which is the only mark of greatness that he cares about. The poem concludes with a reflection on its first lines, saying that “this” is the happy warrior. This is the answer to the poet’s rhetorical questions in the first lines. 

FAQs 

What is the theme of ‘Character of the Happy Warrior?’

The theme of ‘Character of the Happy Warrior’ is what it takes to live a good and moral life. It was inspired by the legendary British war hero Lord Nelson. William Wordsworth penned this poem to inspire anyone seeking to take up arms.

What is the purpose of ‘Character of the Happy Warrior?’

The purpose is to remind me what makes someone truly great. It is not fame, money, or power. It’s the esteem of God and a place in heaven.

What is the tone of ‘Character of the Happy Warrior?’

The tone is reverential and explanatory. The poet spends the lines outlining the character of a happy warrior or someone who cares deeply for their morally righteous cause and never stops trying to better themselves.

What is the message of ‘Character of the Happy Warrior?’

The message is that fame, money, power, and the impact you have on the world mean nothing if you are not esteemed in God’s eyes. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring some other William Wordsworth poems. For example: 

  • Lines Written in Early Spring’ —a landscape poem concerned with nature that describes a man lounging underneath a tree and contemplating the changes society has undergone. 
  • To a Child’ — a short poem in which the poet describes the importance of “service.” 
  • After-Thought’—speaks on nature, death, and humanity’s impact on the earth through the image of the River Duddon. 

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Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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