Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview

Active and
Contemplative Lives

What is the best kind of life—a busy, social one in the urban world of politics, commerce, and conversation, or a retired, thoughtful one in the country, the only company one's own thoughts? This question was frequently debated in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when contemplation meant a profound state of prayer, deeper than meditation, that brought the soul into union with God. The contemplative life often meant retirement to the cloisters of a convent or monastery, and the dichotomy was thus sometimes seen as the contrast between a worldly, materialistic life and a spiritual, ascetic one. In The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), Chaucer's less-than-perfect clergy often reject the contemplative in favor of the active, and seek secular pleasures outside the cloisters. More commonly, poems on this theme approach it from the point of view of the person caught up in the active, competitive world who yearns for a more simple, solitary life. The contemplative life is also associated with melancholy, however, and in his influential study, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Richard Burton considered it almost a disease that could be avoided by pursuing an active life among good company. Despite Burton's warning, the yearning for a contemplative life remains strong among poets, perhaps because they are particularly drawn to the solitude of their own imaginations.

One of the earliest poems to glorify the state of the quiet, contemplative mind is the late sixteenth-century poem “My mind to me a kingdom is,” often credited to Sir Edward Dyer but more recently thought to be written by Edward de Vere. Published in 1588, it has always been one of the most popular Elizabethan lyrics. The poet rejects the allures of a life in high society—the “princely pomp” and “wealthy store” of the aristocrat, the wit of the courtier, and the beauty of the court ladies. He is captured by none of these attractions because his mind “doth serve

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Thematic Guide to British Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Anthologies of British Poetry and Abbreviations Used xi
  • Active and Contemplative Lives 1
  • Art, Imagination, and Inspiration 15
  • Beauty 31
  • Carpe Diem 43
  • Christmas Poems 47
  • Death 53
  • Death of the Young 65
  • Duty 77
  • Fame and Ambition 81
  • Family Relations 85
  • Freedom and Captivity 89
  • The Golden Mean 93
  • Immortality 97
  • Industrialism and the City 105
  • Innocence and Experience 111
  • Love 119
  • Marriage 141
  • Music 153
  • Nature and Country Life 159
  • Old Age 187
  • Patriotism 193
  • Politics and Human Rights 197
  • Pride and Vanity 205
  • Rebellion and Conformity 215
  • Regret, Consolation, and Melancholy 221
  • Religion 229
  • Sleep 243
  • Time and Change 251
  • War 257
  • Biographical Sketches 269
  • Further Reading 293
  • Index 295
  • About the Author 305
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