The Character of a Happy Life  | Summary And Analysis

Summary of The Character of a Happy Life by Henry Wotton

Composed by the English author, diplomat and politician, Sir Henry Wotton, “The Character of a Happy Life” was published as a part of the collection ‘Reliquiae Wottonianae’ (1651) and is one of his most famous works. The poem lists the attributes possessed by one who is truly happy and showcases the path to a good and content life.

Divided into six quatrains, the poem follows a simple rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef and so on. There is use of assonance and consonance in almost all the stanzas There is use of alliteration as can be seen in “flatterers feed” and repetition of the writing style of every stanza. Wotton has also employed anaphora in the poem as every stanza, except the last, starts with “who”. Overall, this simple, didactic piece conveys its message about the ingredients of a happy life quite effectively and in a straightforward manner.


The Character of a Happy Life  | Summary And Analysis


The Character of a Happy Life  | Summary, Stanza 1

How happy is he born and taught

That serveth not another’s will;

Whose armour is his honest thought,

And simple truth his utmost skill!


In the first stanza, the poet says that a happy man is one who displays independence in his thoughts and actions. This quality of being self- reliant, and not being subordinate to others’ disposition and desires, is something that one might either be born with, or might learn later on in his life. Such a man exercises the freedom to have his own perception and unique take on the world and is not governed by the ideals of others. He makes his own decisions, his own choices and is not under the control of any external force. This fills him with a sense of contentment and joy.

The next virtue required to lead a happy life is honesty. As they say, honesty is the best policy and hence, one who remains truthful and sincere shall receive all the joys of the world. Truth shields us from our sins and this ability to live a simple life, with no trace of falsity, is a happy man’s most prized skill. The way to happiness can be paved only through a pure and virtuous living, untainted by falsehood.


The Character of a Happy Life  | Summary, Stanza 2

Whose passions not his masters are;

Whose soul is still prepared for death,

Untied unto the world by care

Of public fame or private breath;

The second stanza further elaborates on the qualities possessed by happy men and the poet says that those who are not governed by their passions, who lead a balanced life, are the ones who find their lives to be full of bliss. Unmoved by the force of their passions and emotions, they remain unfazed in all the ups and downs of life. They are not consumed by the feelings of love, hatred, jealousy or despair. Instead, they rise above these worldly emotions to lead a simple, straightforward life which is free from any sort of turmoil. Having been so evolved, they stand fearless in the face of death as they have accepted it with all their heart. Instead of being afraid of dying, they embrace its truth and are prepared to face it whenever it comes. Their detachment from strong emotions and sentimentalities, makes them level-headed and composed which brings them tranquility and elation.

These happy men are free from the earthly shackles of public opinion and perception of them. They neither care about garnering praise and popularity amidst their fellow beings nor do they pay any heed to what people gossip about them during their private conversations. Unaffected by both flattery and criticism, they walk on a high moral path, with self-satisfaction as their destination.


The Character of a Happy Life | Summary, Stanza 3

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;


In the third stanza, the poet says that the truly content men harbour no jealousy or ill-will against those who have achieved more than them in life. He does not envy those who, being destiny’s favourite, rise above them in stature. He is immune to flattery and false praise, and pays no heed to those who try to bring him down by backstabbing him. A happy man aims not to be the king of states through fear and force, but rather he desires to rule over people’s hearts, wooing them with his goodness and kind spirit.


The Character of a Happy Life | Summary, Stanza 4

Who hath his life from rumours freed;

Whose conscience is his strong retreat;

Whose state can neither flatterers feed,

Nor ruin make oppressors great;


Only the one who moves ahead without giving any attention to the rumours circulated behind his back attains the joy of accomplishment. People may keep saying a lot of things behind his back, many of them being blatant lies, but this does not deter such a man. He possesses a clear conscience which gives him the courage to ignore the unkind words spoken about them. Their inner strength and belief in their righteousness brings their heart to peace. The state of tranquillity so attained cannot be shaken by the adulations of others nor can it be ruined by oppression and misery inflicted upon them by those who wish them harm.

The Character of a Happy Life | Summary, Stanza 5

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;


Another thing that happy people do is that they practise gratitude daily. They do not possess any special skill or talent that enables them to live happily; all one needs to live a content life is God’s grace. Thus, those who stay happy always first thank God for bestowing them with his blessings. It is not God’s gifts that give one pleasure; rather it is his blessings that bring joy and merriment. Those who are happy make sure that they engage in religious readings or heartfelt conversations with their fellows because these things act as food for the soul, and lift one’s spirits. Reading the holy books or sharing their thoughts with a friend relieves one of all stress and acts as a soothing balm upon the wounds of the heart and mind. Thus, the company of books and men gratify one’s soul, leading it to the state of perpetual bliss.

The Character of a Happy Life | Summary, Stanza 6

—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 final stanza, the poet sums up the characteristics of happy people and states that their most important quality is that they are not confined by the desire to rise high or trapped in the fear of failing. Their ambitions do not control them and their failures do not intimidate them. Even though they may not be as powerful as kings and landlords who have immense wealth and power under their control, they are the sole masters of their soul. They are not controlled by anyone and this quality of being able to exercise their free will on themselves is what makes them happy. They might not possess any material possessions, but owning their independent will, they are the wealthiest of all men. They are their own masters and thus, free from all desires and fears, they possess everything despite having nothing.







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