Character of the Happy Warrior
Portrait of William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon (National Portrait Gallery).
"The Character of the Happy Warrior" is a poem by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Composed in 1806, after the death of Lord Nelson, hero of the Napoleonic Wars, and first published in 1807, the poem purports to describe the ideal "man in arms," and has, through ages since, been the source of much metaphor in political & military life.
Wordsworth begins by asking us "Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he What every man in arms should wish to be?"  He then proceeds to answer his important query:
The Happy Warrior is a generous spirit, who, amidst, or, in spite of, the tasks of real life, hath done what pleased his innocent, "childish thought." His noble ideas and deeds are "an inward light" (not unlike the Quaker belief in an inner light) that, despite their inwardness, make the path before the warrior "always bright." The Happy Warrior is a diligent student, eager to amass whatever knowledge comes his way; furthermore, and as a result, his principal concern must be his own moral being. All fearsome challenges he transmutes, subduing what negative qualities they may have, and learning from what good they have to offer. The warrior is "skilful in self-knowledge" (like the philosophers of ancient Greece, living by the famous injunction to "know one's self") and understands that the true purpose of "suffering and distress" is to grow in compassion & "tenderness." His law & dearest friend is Reason; he owes all of his triumphs to Virtue. If he achieves high station, he does so honestly; if he can not act honestly whilst in office, he would sooner quit. Because he is single-mindedly faithful, he does not seek his own advancement. He has a "peculiar grace" that shows itself in any action that he takes, no matter how great or humble. Our Warrior is "happy as a Lover" in the face of the greatest strife; he keeps the law, no matter how severe any conflict may be; when called upon for any task, the Happy Warrior is always equal to it. Though he deals well with all things perilous & turbulent, he aspires to "homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes" (like Cincinnatus or George Washington.) He is not content with any one good or great deed, but always seeks to top himself; and furthermore, for all the worldly esteem he may attain, he, in all his greatness, knows that not even the esteem of history is the most important a man can attain, but that of God: indeed, so long as the Happy Warrior "finds comfort in himself and in his cause," he will have the approval of Heaven, and that, he finally knows, is the only mark of greatness.
The poet concludes with a statement echoing his initial question, i.e. "This is the happy Warrior," &c.
Wordsworth modelled his Happy Warrior on Lord Nelson, who, though his fleet was victorious, had been killed at the Battle of Trafalgar by a French sniper. Nelson had been famous for his loving, inspirational leadership, and had, in previous battles, lost an arm & the sight in one eye, yet persisted in his pursuit of greatness.
Other uses in history
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in nominating Alfred E. Smith for the presidency at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, notably referred to Smith as "the happy warrior"; this, apparently, came at the behest of New York Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, a close friend, campaign advisor, and speech writer for Governor Smith.
Meter & rhyme
The poem is in iambic pentameter, and is composed mostly in rhyming couplets: thus is the poem written in heroic couplets, fitting for a composition extolling those virtues most apparent in "men in arms," and found often in epic works such as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. As in much other heroic verse, the poet here seems to object nothing to the occasional rhyming tercet.
CHARACTER OF THE HAPPY WARRIOR
WHO is the happy Warrior? Who is he That every man in arms should wish to be? --It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought: Whose high endeavours are an inward light That makes the path before him always bright: Who, with a natural instinct to discern What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn; Abides by this resolve, and stops not there, 10 But makes his moral being his prime care; Who, doomed to go in company with Pain, And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train! Turns his necessity to glorious gain; In face of these doth exercise a power Which is our human nature's highest dower; Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves Of their bad influence, and their good receives: By objects, which might force the soul to abate Her feeling, rendered more compassionate; 20 Is placable—because occasions rise So often that demand such sacrifice; More skilful in self-knowledge, even more pure, As tempted more; more able to endure, As more exposed to suffering and distress; Thence, also, more alive to tenderness. --'Tis he whose law is reason; who depends Upon that law as on the best of friends; Whence, in a state where men are tempted still To evil for a guard against worse ill, 30 And what in quality or act is best Doth seldom on a right foundation rest, He labours good on good to fix, and owes To virtue every triumph that he knows: --Who, if he rise to station of command, Rises by open means; and there will stand On honourable terms, or else retire, And in himself possess his own desire; Who comprehends his trust, and to the same Keeps faithful with a singleness of aim; 40 And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait For wealth, or honours, or for worldly state; Whom they must follow; on whose head must fall, Like showers of manna, if they come at all: Whose powers shed round him in the common strife, Or mild concerns of ordinary life, A constant influence, a peculiar grace; But who, if he be called upon to face Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined Great issues, good or bad for human kind, 50 Is happy as a Lover; and attired With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired; And, through the heat of conflict, keeps the law In calmness made, and sees what he foresaw; Or if an unexpected call succeed, Come when it will, is equal to the need: --He who, though thus endued as with a sense And faculty for storm and turbulence, Is yet a Soul whose master-bias leans To homefelt pleasures and to gentle scenes; 60 Sweet images! which, wheresoe'er he be, Are at his heart; and such fidelity It is his darling passion to approve; More brave for this, that he hath much to love:-- 'Tis, finally, the Man, who, lifted high, Conspicuous object in a Nation's eye, Or left unthought-of in obscurity,-- Who, with a toward or untoward lot, Prosperous or adverse, to his wish or not—Plays, in the many games of life, that one 70 Where what he most doth value must be won: Whom neither shape of danger can dismay, Nor thought of tender happiness betray; Who, not content that former worth stand fast, Looks forward, persevering to the last, From well to better, daily self-surpast: Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth For ever, and to noble deeds give birth, Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame, And leave a dead unprofitable name—80 Finds comfort in himself and in his cause; And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws His breath in confidence of Heaven's applause: This is the happy Warrior; this is He That every Man in arms should wish to be.
- Harvard Classics, vol. 41. English Poetry, in three volumes, vol. ii. From Collins to Fitzgerald. pp. 656–658.
- Lambert 2004, pp.107–109
- Baer 2006