This poem is all about how to live a contented life. It seems to describe the life of someone who dedicates their existence to God and avoiding the temptations of the world. You could read this as being about a celibate priestly existence or maybe a hermit abandoning all of life’s temptations.
Through following religious doctrine and avoiding other temptations a person is shown to be able to live free from worries, cares or troubles.
The man of life upright,
Whose guiltless heart is free,
From all dishonest deeds
Or thought of vanity.
The man whose silent days
In harmless joys are spent,
Whom hopes cannot delude
Nor sorrow discontent:
That man needs neither towers
Nor armour for defence,
Nor secret vaults to fly
From thunder’s violence.
He only can behold
With unaffrighted eyes
The horrors of the deep
And terrors of the skies.
Thus scorning all the cares
That fate or fortune brings,
He makes the heaven his book,
His wisdom heavenly things;
Good thoughts his only friends,
His wealth a well-spent age,
The earth his sober inn
And quiet pilgrimage.
Thomas Campion (1567-1620)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Campion flew under the radar for many years as his work was in an unusual/unpopular format, being performed alongside the lute (think a mini-guitar).
He was pretty unremarkable; he never married or had children and aside from his composition was a doctor of no great renown and died seemingly with the plague. The most interesting thing about him was getting accused of murdering someone, but that was all one big misunderstanding.
This poem can be read as a parable (or guide to our behaviour and conduct) and maybe he means to reflect his own existence. The life described is one that is unburdened with human interests and temptations and dedicated to religious morality; he didn’t marry or have kids, so it is conceivable that he thought his life was upright in this manner, avoiding the temptations of the flesh.
I see three main ideas here: faith, mortality and care.
This poem guides us towards a moral life that ‘makes the heaven his book’ or follows the bible and its teachings. It links religious compliance with freedom from earthly worries and troubles and suggests that righteousness helps one to live without fear of death.
You’ll find analysis elsewhere that suggests this poem is all about how to be the perfect person, but I’d hope anyone living today would recognise the significant flaws in the ‘Upright’ man’s life.
Let’s start by explaining what ‘upright’ means. It has connotations of religious righteousness and morality and the poem seems to suggest that to be upright one must have no sin or mistakes in his past (even Jesus acknowledge that this was a bit of a long shot – he who is without sin amongst you, let him be the first to throw a stone). The ‘guiltless heart’ without ‘dishonest deeds’ or ‘vanity’ suggests some kind of perfection, but is also unrealistic. Everyone has something to be guilty about and vanity, or putting yourself first, is a perfectly sensible way to act… but maybe not particularly desirable if you want to be a star in the eyes of your religion.
Now consider how appealing the next stanza appears. Live ‘silent days’ and only get involved in ‘harmless joys’, thus forget your partying or having a good time/good time with other people as there are obviously too raucous and morally a bit suspect. However, the next two lines are even worse. If ‘hopes cannot delude’ there is an implication that either an upright person has no hopes or they daren’t dream of anything more than the most humble and empty of lives. I find this a pretty depressing image of perfection. I also see ‘nor sorrow discontent’ as being associated with the emotions of human relationships. If you can’t feel sorrow then surely you are limiting your experiences and cannot feel the true elation that meets success or a joyous relationship.
Other analysis might suggest that I am over egging this; I’ve read that this simple praises those who are honest, do not rely on others and doesn’t allow themselves to be carried away or deceived by false hopes. I prefer my interpretation, but you could talk about both as alternative interpretations and blow your examiner’s socks off!
In stanza three we see the benefits of this kind of lifestyle and have a nice connection with A Mind Content and I Grieve, and Dare Not Show My Discontent. This man needs ‘neither towers nor armour for defence’ links us the idea of royalty or power and the associated stress and troubles. As a result of avoiding power, conflict or self-interest the righteous man has nothing to fear and worry about, on earth or from above. When it ends with ‘thunder’s violence’ we are linked to God and how the upright do not need to fear judgement – thunder is traditional associated with God’s wrath and anger.
The religious associations continue with the idea that they are also safe from ‘the horrors of the deep’, which we should associate with the pain and suffering of hell (not sharks at the bottom of the ocean, as suggested by one of my bunch!) and the ‘terrors of the skies’ is associated with the rapture or end of the world, which is the time when you are either judged and cast to hell or ascend to heaven: guess which for our upright friend.
To link this poem directly to the theme of cares/troubles/duty examine the fifth stanza. This kind of lifestyle with lead us to ‘scorn’ cares as we are above them and have no cause to be troubled about anything and no matter what happens in our lives we are invulnerable to troubles as a result of the humility and humbleness that rules an upright life. There is also a clear indication where the guidelines for this type of life come from: ‘He makes the heaven his book, His wisdom heavenly thing’ is about as direct as you can address religion. Following the rules of God leads to no earthly or otherworldly worries.
Try telling that to the millions of religious people who finds themselves routinely persecuted around the world!
Finally we return to the depressing element of this perfection. The ‘only friends’ of this man are his morally wonderful thoughts and his wealth and success is achieved only through smug self-satisfaction at being so sodding good all the time. Think about how boring a ‘sober inn’ would be without enjoyment, getting drunk and making an idiot of yourself. Also would you like your whole life to be ‘a quiet pilgrimage’, dedicated to worshipping God or other religious things?
I’m actually quite angry about this presentation of being upright; it seems bereft of any joy or contact with any other person. Why bother living your life just for the after life… boring! Also, a bit of a risk.
I’ve done it again, blathering on in the content section!
This is just a quick recap of what I’ve been through. Make sure you mention the connection with religion throughout with ‘pilgrimage’, ‘thunder’s violence’, making ‘heaven his book’ and only indulging in ‘heavenly thoughts’. You could describe this as a semantic field of biblical terms/associations. A godly life seems to be the only way to be unburden with worries… although also, in my opinion, of joy.
‘Harmless’, ‘silent’, ‘sober’ are all words that makes us think about an upright life in terms of being one that avoids excess and human pleasures.
‘Guiltless heart’ and ‘without dishonest deeds’ should suggest purity, but also potentially judgement of others for not quite so virtuous.
That’ll do, look back in content if you want more.
It is structured like a sermon, someone preaching a message that the listeners should heed to improve their lives.
It is organised into six stanza that are all quatrains, but interestingly there is a huge amount of enjambment in the first four stanza and not in the last two. Why? Well, quite simply they are different parts of the sermon. At first we are being giving a shopping list of virtues or ways we need to live our life that the sermon rattles through with speed and authority and the impact these traits will have on our existence. Then, in the final two, we are told how to achieve this virtuous state.
The first three stanzas all run together and preach that honesty and a humble life will lead to a life safe from earthly worries, while the forth connects this with salvation upon death.
The final two stanzas see the pace slowing down as the sermon teaches how to become upright, by leaning on the bible and avoiding earthly temptation.
I really don’t like this poem. I think the tone is quite condescending and judgemental. The poem seems to be read from the perspective who thinks they are close to this image of uprightness and is so prescriptive that only a tiny minority of individuals could possibly be judged to be upright. Therefore, after reading this poem, normal people, should feel as if they are being told the way they are leading their lives is not right and will cause them earthly and other worldly worries. Pah!