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