Sir Walter Ralegh's "The Lie"

Updated on October 7, 2017
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Sir Walter Ralegh


Introduction and Spelling of the Poet's Name: Ralegh vs Raleigh

It is likely readers have encountered the spelling of Sir Walter's last name as "Raleigh." You might note that even Tom O'Bedlam, the reading voice, employs that usage.

So which one is correct? Ralegh or Raleigh? The latter form has become so widely used that it is now considered an appropriate choice.

However, as historian Mathew Lyons avers: "‘Raleigh’ . . . is rarely used by anyone who has ever written about him in any depth."

The pronunciation of the name is, however, "Rawley," and the poet had been known to employ various spellings of his name, except for "Raleigh"—this is the one form the poet never used.

Thus, "Ralegh" should actually be considered the correct spelling, and "Rawley" the accurate pronunciation.

The speaker in Sir Walter Ralegh's "The Lie" commands his departing soul, which is metaphorically implied to be the poem itself, to go about the world and engage a number of potentates and others of "high condition" from all stations of endeavor by alerting them to their fabrications.

Reading of Ralegh's "The Lie"

First Sestet: "Go, soul, the body's guest"

The speaker boldly commands his soul (his poem) to go on a "thankless errand" of telling "the best" the truth about themselves. "The best," of course, is pure irony because the speaker is commanding his soul to tell those pompous fools that they are liars.

The speaker avers that he is dying, so therefore his physical body's "guest," the soul, must go forth and run this important errand, which is to "give the world the lie."

Second Sestet: "Say to the court it glows"

The first stop the soul must make is a visit with the court and the church. The court "glows / And shines like rotten wood." The reader envisions a wood-paneled courtroom which should be a place of high minded, values-driven officers, but the speaker has found those court officials to be dishonest.

Likewise, the church that "shows what is good" does not follow its own precepts, and thus he commands his soul to deliver to the courts and the churches remonstrance, "give them both the lie."

Third Sestet: "Tell potentates, they live"

To the heads of state, the speaker requires his soul to relay that they have power through those whom they serve, and if these frauds try to obfuscate, the soul is to "give potentates the lie."

Fourth Sestet: "Tell men of high condition"

The speaker has found too many in managerial positions to be untrustworthy; they work only for personal ambition and gain, and they "practice only hate."

The soul must remind these people that if they try to counter his accusations that they too are liars.

Fifth Sestet: "Tell them that brave it most"

To the most brazen of the governing set, the speaker would have them know that their over-generosity with taxed revenue simply makes them more pretentious.

The more they beg, the more devious their causes are shown to be and thus again they shall have their lies handed back to them.

Sixth Sestet: "Tell zeal it wants devotion"

To those who would portray a zealous bluster, the speaker would deem they simply lack devotion, while love is confused with lust.

Time becomes conflated with motion, and he then reminds everyone that the human body is merely "dust."

And again to those who try to protest these verities, he would "give the lie."

Seventh Sestet: "Tell age it daily wasteth"

Continuing his venture in the abstract qualities, all exemplified by frail human personalities the speaker has encountered, he puts the screws to the false representatives of age, honor, beauty, and favor—all of course must be reminded of their lying ways.

Eighth Sestet: "Tell wit how much it wrangles"

Even qualities as exalted as "wit" find condemnation when it "wrangles / In fickle points of niceness."

And "wisdom" sometimes "entangles / Herself in over-wiseness." And if they deny these accusations, they too must be given "the lie."

Ninth Sestet: "Tell physic of her boldness"

The "boldness" of physic, the "skill" of prevention, the "charity of coldness," and the contentiousness of "law" all combine to deceive and thus must be given the lie.

Tenth Sestet: "Tell fortune of her blindness"

For the blindness of fortune, the decay of nature, the unkindness of friendship, and the delay of justice—all of these qualities deserve rebuke and to be called prevaricators if they contradict the accusations of their culpability.

Eleventh Sestet: "Tell arts they have no soundness"

The arts have no reliability but depend on the fame of the artist, and educational institutions lack depth as they "stand too much on seeming."

They both must be upbraided and deemed liars if they rebuff these charges.

Twelfth Sestet: "Tell faith it's fled the city"

Faith has "fled the city," but the country makes mistakes as well. Manhood and virtue are nowhere to be found.

And they all deserve to be given the lie.

Thirteenth Sestet: "So when thou hast, as I"

The speaker then sums up his "blabbing" by suggesting that after the soul has accosted all of these misanthropes, he is likely to be thought to deserve "no less than stabbing."

But the beauty of sending his soul—literally, of course, his poem—to do this dirty job is that no knife can kill the soul or the poem.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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