‘My mind to me a kingdom is’ is a poem that has been popular with readers ever since it was published in 1588 in William Byrd’s Psalmes, Sonets, & Songs. Yet the authorship of ‘My mind to me a kingdom is’ is by no means certain. Who wrote it? First, here’s the poem, which expresses the sentiment that one’s own mind contains a whole world, and, indeed – as Emily Dickinson would later also express – more than the world, since the only limit on it is the limit of our own imagination, or what we are able to conceive of.
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such present joys therein I find,
That it excels all other bliss
That earth affords or grows by kind:
Though much I want that most would have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.
No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
No shape to feed a loving eye;
To none of these I yield as thrall;
For why? my mind doth serve for all.
I see how plenty surfeits oft,
And hasty climbers soon do fall;
I see that those which are aloft
Mishap doth threaten most of all:
They get with toil, they keep with fear:
Such cares my mind could never bear.
Content I live, this is my stay;
I seek no more than may suffice;
I press to bear no haughty sway;
Look, what I lack my mind supplies.
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring.
Some have too much, yet still do crave;
I little have, and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have,
And I am rich with little store;
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I leave; they pine, I live.
I laugh not at another’s loss,
I grudge not at another’s gain;
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
My state at one doth still remain:
I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;
I loathe not life, nor dread my end.
Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
Their wisdom by their rage of will;
Their treasure is their only trust,
A cloakèd craft their store of skill;
But all the pleasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind.
My wealth is health and perfect ease,
My conscience clear my chief defence;
I neither seek by bribes to please,
Nor by deceit to breed offence:
Thus do I live; thus will I die;
Would all did so as well as I!
The gist of ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’ – that one’s mind is a powerful source of happiness to oneself – was a popular Renaissance one, and this poem was popular. The sentiment itself is far older, and can be traced back to classical Latin poetry.
To paraphrase the general meaning of the poem: ‘My mind is an endless source of happiness to me, comparable in its size and scope to a whole kingdom. And yet my mind does not encourage me to desire things which are beyond my reach; it has enough for me, but no more. I am contented with my lot, and don’t desire more than what I have. After all, those who slave away to get more than they have, then have to guard jealously what they have kept. As a result of this attitude, I neither hate life, nor fear death: I am level-headed about both. Whereas others judge their character by their material goods, I simply judge myself by the quality of my mind. Such peace of mind is the only “wealth” I require.’
Since the nineteenth century, Edward Dyer (1543-1607) has always been acknowledged as the author of ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’, until this was questioned in the late twentieth century by Steven W. May. Did Dyer actually write it? May puts forward some evidence – including an attribution in one of the early manuscripts of the poem – that it was Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) who wrote ‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’, rather than Dyer. The Earl of Oxford is better-known for being the subject of a conspiracy theory which sees him as the ‘true’ author of Shakespeare’s plays, and for an embarrassing incident involving a fart in the company of Queen Elizabeth I. We will perhaps never know for sure which of the two men wrote the poem, but we have the poem, which is the most important thing. Its message may have enjoyed its zenith of popularity during the Elizabethan era, but the poem’s emphasis on maintaining a level-headed attitude to things, where one is happy with one’s lot, still speaks to us over four centuries later.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.