Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview

The Golden Mean

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

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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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