May 1 poem on May 2

While it is still dark here on the West Coast, I wish to write about a poem from the book Poem For the Day, edited by Nicholas Albery. I opened to the May 1 poem (thinking it was still the first of May), which is a poem by John Dryden entitled “Happy the Man”.

When I was in tenth grade at ol’ Downey High School, Ms. Hanson taught us about English literature. We learned about Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, and Milton. In my memory of these poets, I have confused their eras. Apparently, Shakespeare and Jonson were contemporaries as were Milton and Dryden (albeit if Dryden was significantly younger than Milton). All this is to say–the first time I heard about Dryden was in Ms. Hanson’s class in tenth grade.

“Happy the Man” by Dryden strikes me as an interesting poem because it strikes me as quite “Seize the Day” in tone but also it is meditative. It’s not merely a “Carpe Diem”-type poem. It does not implore us to merely seek pleasure. The poem implores us to be grateful and to say, “I have lived. Nothing can take that away from me.”

Happy the Man

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

According to the poetry collection, Dryden died on May 1, 1700.

Oh! I see what’s going on here. The poem is a translation of Horace (Odes, Book III, xxix). I understand now why I was so confused at first. This is not an original poem but rather a translation (which is an art in its own right)! The theme of the poem does seem rather Carpe Diem, and it probably was in the original Latin. Regardless, I love the tone of the poem and Dryden’s interpretation. It resonates with me on this early morning.

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