Normally Aspired

Normally Aspired

This week’s choices are about aspirations—the human desire to be better in whatever way you may measure that.

Rudyard Kipling starts our list of desirable traits with his popular poem “If—

Sir Henry Wotton wrote “The Character of an a Happy Life” in the seventeenth century but it still seems relevant today.

Even older are the quatrains of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, eight of which (as translated by Edward Fitzgerald) complete this week’s choices.

Poem 64. If—

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And, which is more, you’ll be a Man, my son!

I’ve always liked this poem because it seems like advice given by a father to his son (though the advice could equally be delivered by a mother to her daughter). I think this poem is a wish list of traits that are valuable for anyone, though I doubt that anyone ever achieved the full set since Sir Leander Starr Jameson, the Scottish colonial politician and leader of the Jameson Raid, a bungled operation against the Transvaal (also known as the South African Republic) which led to the Boer War of 1899—1902. Kipling wrote the poem as a tribute to Jameson because he admired the way Jameson recovered his prestige after the debacle of the eponymous raid.

I think the poem works because the characteristics described are things we can admire, and they are expressed with Kipling’s trademark strong rhymes: virtue/hurt you and sinew/in you I like particularly.

I suspect that hearing “the truth you’ve spoken/twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools” must have been experienced by many national medical and scientific advisors in the last several months.


  • Read more about the poem on Wikipedia.
  • Read more about Leander Starr Jameson on Wikipedia.
  • Read more about the Jameson Raid on Wikipedia.

Poem 65. The Character of a Happy Life

This man is free from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands;
And having nothing, yet hath all.

Henry Wotton (1568—1639)

How happy is he born or taught,
That serveth not another’s will;
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And simple truth his highest skill;

Whose passions not his masters are;
Whose soul is still prepar’d for death
Untied unto the world with care
Of princes’ grace or vulgar breath;

Who envies none whom chance doth raise,
Or vice; who never understood
The deepest wounds are given by praise,
By rule of state, but not of good;

Who hath his life from rumours freed;
Whose conscience is his strong retreat;
Whose state can neither flatterers feed,
Nor ruins make accusers great;

Who God doth late and early pray,
More of his grace than goods to send,
And entertains the harmless day
With a well-chosen book or friend.

This man is free from servile bands
Of hope to rise or fear to fall;
Lord of himself, though not of lands;
And having nothing, yet hath all.

This poem speaks of someone who lives a simple but rewarding life: they are not beholden to any other person; they are immune to envy and rumour and suffer neither the falseness of flattery nor the accusations of the envious. This person prays not for material wealth and possessions but for peace and forgiveness and prefers the company of a friend or a good book.

I picked it because its themes seem to me to be echoed in Kipling’s poem.

Sir Henry Wotton himself understood the vicissitudes of public life and perhaps yearned at times for the simple life he espouses in his poem. He was an English diplomat and politician in the early 17th Century and was ambassador at Venice for many years. He is also credited with saying, “An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country,” though this landed him in hot water when an enemy attributed the saying to him, implying that the morals of King James I of England and his servants were less than satisfactory. Wotton suffered only a temporary disgrace and eventually won a parliamentary seat and regained his diplomatic career.

He was later the provost of Eton College (a post held 300 years later by the scholar and ghost story writer M.R. James) and was a close friend of the writer and angler Izaak Walton, who added a biography of his friend to those he wrote about John Donne and others.

Poem 66. From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Omar Khayyam (1048—1131), translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1809—1883)


But come with old Khayyam, and leave the Lot
Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru forgot:
Let Rustum lay about him as he will,
Or Hatim Tai cry Supper—heed them not.


With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.


Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.


“How sweet is mortal Sovranty!”—think some:
Others—“How blest the Paradise to come!”
Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;
Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!


Look to the Rose that blows about us—“Lo,
Laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow:
At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”


The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.


And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.


Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

The Rubaiyat is a particular favourite of mine, but is so long that I hesitate to include it all—I’ll settle for these eight quatrains this time, which express Khayyam’s philosophy that it doesn’t matter what you do—in the end we all die, humble or great, poor or rich—so enjoy what you have while you can.

Probably the best known part of the Rubaiyat is quatrain XI, where the poet says that his beloved, a quantity of wine and bread, and a book of poetry are enough to make even the wilderness seem like Paradise. It’s a beautiful sentiment and Fitzgerald says it so well.

The whole poem is richly metaphorical and Fitzgerald’s translation describes the transience of earthly life and the poet’s philosophy in beautifully chosen English.

I love the description of the rose that grows, blooms, spreads its seeds and perishes and the implication that one should follow suit. The description of the present as a caravanserai (roadside inn) whose doors lead to Night and Day is also a favourite.

The attribution of the verses to Omar Khayyam is debatable—he was a noted astronomer and mathematician, but there is no record of his having been a poet of special excellence. It is thought that very few of the quatrains can be directly linked to him, so he may have contributed to an earlier tradition.