Reviewing my collection of poetry, I noticed several different poets who had written poems with very similar themes, on what constitutes a happy life. ‘Twas almost as if they all had the same teacher, who gave them an assignment one day. But alas, that teacher must no longer be teaching: that is, I do not find many (any?) recent poems which share the same sentiments. Perhaps our society’s conception of the happy life has changed enough, that what these poets celebrated is now beyond the scope of the normal.
Farewell to Folly
by Robert Greene (1560-1592)
Sweet are the thoughts that savour of content;
The quiet mind is richer than a crown;
Sweet are the nights in careless slumber spent;
The poor estate scorns fortune’s angry frown:
Such sweet content, such minds, such sleep, such bliss,
Beggars enjoy, when princes oft do miss.
The homely house that harbours quiet rest;
The cottage that affords no pride nor care;
The mean that ‘grees with country music best;
The sweet consort of mirth and music’s fare;
Obscured life sets down a type of bliss:
A mind content both crown and kingdom is.
A Happy Life
by Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639)
How happy is he born and taught
That serveth not another’s will;
Whose armor is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill!
Whose passions not his masters are,
Whose soul is still prepared for death,
Not tied unto the world with care
Of public fame or private breath;
Who envies none that chance doth raise,
Or vice; who never understood
How deepest wounds are given by praise;
Nor rules of state, but rules of good;
Who hath his life from rumors freed,
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
Nor ruin make accusers great;
Who God doth late and early pray
More of His grace than gifts to lend;
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend—
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.
“Happy were he”
by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1566-1601)
Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.
by Nahum Tate (1652-1715)
Grant me, indulgent Heaven, a rural seat,
Rather contemptible than great;
Where, though I taste life’s sweets, still I may be
Athirst for immortality.
I would have business, but exempt from strife;
A private, but an active, life;
A conscience bold, and punctual to his charge;
My stock of health, or patience, large.
Some books I’d have, and some acquaintance too,
But very good, and very few.
Then (if one mortal two such grants may crave)
From silent life I’d steal into my grave.