Sir Walter Ralegh's "The Lie"

Updated on May 19, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Lie"

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.

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 Lie

Go, soul, the body’s guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good, and doth no good.
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.

Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others’ action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate.
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who, in their greatest cost,
Seek nothing but commending.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell zeal it wants devotion;
Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it is but motion;
Tell flesh it is but dust.
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.

Tell age it daily wasteth;
Tell honor how it alters;
Tell beauty how she blasteth;
Tell favor how it falters.
And as they shall reply,
Give every one the lie.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In tickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in overwiseness.
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention.
And as they do reply,
So give them still the lie.

Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay.
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

Tell faith it’s fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell manhood shakes off pity;
Tell virtue least preferreth.
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing—
Although to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing—
Stab at thee he that will,
No stab the soul can kill.

Reading of Ralegh's "The Lie"

Commentary

Through varied forms of the idiom, "give the lie to," the speaker's refrain emphasizes the disingenuousness that is being decried throughout the poem.

First Sestet: Truth Telling

Go, soul, the body’s guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

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: Court and Church

Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good, and doth no good.
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.

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: State

Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others’ action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

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: Management

Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate.
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

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: Taxes

Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who, in their greatest cost,
Seek nothing but commending.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.

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: Bluster

Tell zeal it wants devotion;
Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it is but motion;
Tell flesh it is but dust.
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.

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: Frailty

Tell age it daily wasteth;
Tell honor how it alters;
Tell beauty how she blasteth;
Tell favor how it falters.
And as they shall reply,
Give every one the lie.

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: Wit and Wisdom

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In tickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in overwiseness.
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

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: Deceptive Combination

Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention.
And as they do reply,
So give them still the lie.

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: Justice Delayed

Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay.
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.

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: Art and Famer

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

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: Faith

Tell faith it’s fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell manhood shakes off pity;
Tell virtue least preferreth.
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

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: A Dirty Job

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing—
Although to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing—
Stab at thee he that will,
No stab the soul can kill.

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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