The “golden mean” signifies the middle course between extremes, or moderation. As a principle to live by it was made popular by the Roman poet Horace in Ode, II. x, in which Horace advises us to make the golden mean (aurea mediocritas) our guide: do not seek great wealth because it is as prone to disaster as the tall pine and the high mountain (which suffer the severest weather). The Renaissance playwright Philip Massinger in The Great Duke of Florence (1627) urges us to avoid greatness. His duke, bemoaning his apparently favored state, declares, “Happy the golden mean!” In English poetry it was a favorite theme of the Renaissance and seventeenth century, where it was described as an educated, civilized way of life. Like the poems that favored the contemplative rather than the active life, these poems praise a life of seclusion in the country, surrounded by good books, fine wine, and congenial friends. John Pomfret's poem “The Choice” (1700) is the longest expression of the theme. Samuel Johnson in his Lives of the English Poets (1779−1781) praised Pomfret's portrait of the golden mean as “such a state as affords plenty and tranquillity, without exclusion of intellectual pleasures.” The poems included in this section deal exclusively with describing such a moderate life, whereas poems in the Active and Contemplative Lives section contrast different ways of living that are often complemented by mood or personality.
The Renaissance poet Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, describes the golden mean in “My Friend, the Things That Do Attain” (1548), a translation of an epigram by the Latin poet Martial. The poem, four stanzas of four lines each, is arranged formally with a statement of intent, a colon, and a list of the requirements for a happy life, each item separated by semicolons so that the whole poem is actually one sentence. Surrey neatly dramatizes the balance required by the theme in the arrangement