What does the poem 'The Lie' by Sir Walter Raleigh mean?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is not completely clear that Raleigh actually wrote this poem, given that the themes are not necessarily ones he would have agreed with at many times in his life.

The basic meaning of this poem is that the speaker believes that basically everything in the world is corrupt.  The speaker believes that everything that pretends to be good is bad.  Throughout the poem, the speaker is telling his soul to go and expose the truth about various things.

He wants to expose the lie that the church is a force for good.  He wants to prove that the high born are ambitious and hateful.  And he also wants to show that emotions that are supposed to be good (like love) are really not (love is just lust).

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Karyth Cara | College Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Although "The Lie" may seem to be simple, the meaning of the poem is complex because the poem itself arose out of complexity. Complexity existed because of:

  1. Ralegh's life situation c. 1592-1594 when he wrote "The Lie."
  2. The objective he intended when writing the poem.
  3. The ironic contrasts with which he blasts the institutions of his day.
  4. The double and triple archaic definitions of now commonplace words.

All these factors deserve thoughtful exploration, but the meaning of "The Lie" can first be briefly stated. Possibly writing while imprisoned in 1592 by England's Queen Elizabeth I, Ralegh blasts the supposed righteousness and might of England's governing and socio-cultural institutions. These institutions are those that permitted him to be imprisoned by his sovereign--whom he believed he had dutifully served--and others that failed to come to his defense. These governing and socio-cultural institutions range from Queen Elizabeth I's royal court to her courtiers "who brave it"--chiefly Elizabeth's new favorite, the Earl of Essex , Robert Devereux (or Essex)--to charity to wisdom to schools to love and, finally, to faith, manhood and virtue.

Ralegh devastates the superficial facade of each by naming what the institution professes to be, then, with bitter irony, proclaiming what it really is. For example, charity is "coldness," wisdom is overblown, brave courtiers are ease seekers, and virtue is "least preferred." The meaning of the poem--written at a time when Elizabeth I refused to accept Ralegh back into her favor--conveys Ralegh's retaliatory condemnation of those who condemned him thus compelling him to expose how false they all are. Since giving an accusation of falseness (equivalent to being said to lack truth, honor and valor) required a to-the-death challenge in Ralegh's time, he sends his "soul" to safely deliver the messages of condemnation for him.

Research Caveat

Let me divert attention from Ralegh for a moment to give one caveat about researching on the Internet for information about Ralegh's "The Lie." There is not much background or analytical information available about "The Lie" online (there is sound biographical background material though), and much of what is available is weak; some is actually incorrect, like the statement that "The Lie" was written while Ralegh was awaiting his execution and that "I must needs die" refers to that upcoming execution.

The way to evaluate information you find online about "The Lie" is to fact-check the dates (imprisoned by Elizabeth I in 1592-1593; "The Lie" written c. 1592-1594, the first manuscript evidence from c. 1595; Ralegh's imprisonments and execution under King James I in 1603 and 1618, with his execution three days after his 1618 imprisonment) and to pay attention to how the words Ralegh uses are being defined (even if only "defined" by what is explained about the poem) and to check that the double- and sometimes triple-meaning word-play elements are addressed, for these alter our perception of Ralegh's meaning in surprising ways, for example, when "faith" includes the meaning of loyalty and duty to friends. You might also check to see if the explication you find online refers you back to the breach of friendship between Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth I or simply overlooks that critical event in Ralegh's personal and poetic life.

Summary of Critical Points of Analysis for "The Lie"

1. "The Lie" is structured as 13 stanzas of six lines, with two ab rhyming verses and one couplet each, with the couplet being a repeating refrain having variations at each stanza. The main poetic device is an apostrophe in which Ralegh addresses his personified soul, giving him a dangerous errand that will gain the soul no thanks: a "thankless errand."
2. Key poetic devices are an opening tone of despair, a general bitterness of tone, a final lamenting tone to the end the poem, irony, personification and oppositional comparisons.
3. Ralegh accuses everything and everybody, especially Queen Elizabeth I, of falseness, of being false betrayers of what they purport to be.
4. Ralegh directs the soul to give each of the accused the lie. To "give the lie" meant to assert the cowardliness and falseness of the individual addressed. This was a grievous insult in Ralegh's time and required the response of a duel to the death to prove the accused was both true and not a coward.
5. The penultimate stanza (next-to-last) is a summarily worded reiteration of all he has said before, and it is a lament, not bitter irony.
6. The final stanza explains why he sends his soul on the thankless errand rather than go himself and why he says in the first stanza "since I needs must die": he is mortal; souls are immortal; be they stabbed over and over, they cannot die (but he can).
7. Ralegh uses words in a precise manner, an exacting manner, employing double- and triple-meaning word-play and selecting words recently borrowed into English from Latin and French, like contention, entangle, stabbing, motion and manage, most c. 1500.
8. "The Soul's Errand" is a different poem from "The Lie," but their titles are often confused and used as though for one poem. Although "The Soul's Errand" begins with the first six stanzas of Ralegh's "The Lie"--minus Ralegh's refraining couplet in stanzas 2-6--"The Soul's Errand" is longer. The additional 14 stanzas (for a total of 20 stanzas) were written by Joshua Sylvester, who authored the 14 inferior additional four-line stanzas, the removal of the refrain couplet from borrowed stanzas 2-6 and the changes to Ralegh's words, for example, the change from Ralegh's "Seek nothing but commending" to Sylvester's inferior "Seek but a self-commending," thus altering Ralegh's profound meaning altogether.

Ralegh's Name Spelling

While analyzing the meaning of "The Lie," of critical importance will be understanding the meanings of the words as Ralegh uses them. The word meanings as Ralegh uses them present as much surprise as the correct spelling of his name. According to Encyclopedia Britannica as quoted by Anniina Jokinen on luminarium.org, Walter Ralegh's family name was spelled "Ralegh." During his lifetime, Walter Ralegh spelled his name a number of different ways [perhaps depending upon mood or what was fashionable], finally settling upon "Ralegh." Although "Raleigh" is the popular contemporary spelling for his name, there is no documentary evidence from any source that Walter Ralegh ever used the spelling "Raleigh." Consequently, while "Raleigh" is what is most commonly seen, our discussion of meaning in "The Lie" will honor Walter Ralegh's choice and use "Ralegh."

Archaic Definitions of Contemporary Words

In the same way that Ralegh's name has an archaic element to it (archaic: out of date form no longer in use), so do the meanings of many of the words he uses. This proves deceptive because, while the words themselves may still be in use, like "commending," the archaic meanings that Ralegh draws upon are not. Therefore in order to understand the meaning of individual lines, thus the meaning of the entire poem, we have to rely heavily upon a good dictionary so we can find those archaic meanings. Random House Dictionary (available along with Collins English Dictionary online through Dictionary.com) and WordNik.com are good sources for finding archaic meanings. For example, we find this for "commending": feudal law asking protection, land and wealth from a king or duke while agreeing to become their loyal vassal.

Ralegh's Life Situation While Writing "The Lie"

With the first manuscript evidence of "The Lie" dating to 1595 or 1596, it is supposed that Ralegh wrote the poem between 1592 and 1594; he was imprisoned by Elizabeth I from 1592 to 1593. Scholars speculate that Ralegh wrote "The Lie" during that year of imprisonment in the expansive castle called The Tower of London (it's a castle, not just a tower). The White Tower of London, as it was originally called, was built by William the Conqueror during the 1070s as an impregnable castle. It was used by Richard III in the 1400s and then by Henry VIII in the 1500s as a prison for political enemies. Although its sunlit quarters for prestigious and ennobled prisoners--such as the two youthful Tudor Princes Edward V and Richard, Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Sir Walter Ralegh--were not austere, and in some cases even spacious, they were nonetheless quarters surrounded by prison walls as formidable as those of a dungeon. Ralegh was to be imprisoned there two more times in his life, both times by Elizabeth's successor, King James I of England, first known as King James the IV of Scotland.

Ralegh in Queen Elizabeth's Court

Ralegh had been a great court favorite with Queen Elizabeth I (and here "court" means the assemblage surrounding a sovereign ruler, like a queen or king or duke, not a judicial court of law) and was given great opportunities to explore unknown oceans, claim foreign lands for England, establish colonies in America, introduce new imports to England from far off lands. He was given wealth, prestige, importance in government, all through the personal favor of Queen Elizabeth. He fell out of her favor, however, when she discovered that he had broken her rule against ladies-in-waiting being married. He had  secretly married Elizabeth Throgmorton (also spelled Throckmorton), lady-in-waiting of the Privy Chamber of the Queen. As retribution, the Queen had Ralegh imprisoned in the Tower from 1592 to 1593 (Elizabeth Throgmorton was separately imprisoned in the Tower) when he was released to settle a dispute over distribution of captured booty. Elizabeth I then let him go on to search in 1595 for South America's Eldorado, the City of Gold.

What Might Have Inspired the Writing of "The Lie"?

While imprisoned under Elizabeth I for his unauthorized marriage, Ralegh employed all his wiles to win his way back into Elizabeth I's good graces, but all his efforts failed. The Queen had new favorites at court, especially Essex, and continued to turn her back on Ralegh. In 1593, the Queen needed Ralegh to superintend a problem relating to the distribution of booty taken from a captured Portuguese ship amongst the sailors of Ralegh's last expedition (the one he was engaged in when called back to answer to Queen Elizabeth about his unauthorized, secret marriage). Consequently, Elizabeth released Ralegh from the Tower. Considering his circumstances, here are two scenarios that might explain when Ralegh wrote "The Lie." He may have written it during his 1592-1593 imprisonment or he may have written it soon thereafter, perhaps 1594, after his release yet before his next expedition in 1595.

If Ralegh wrote "The Lie" during his imprisonment, that would mean that with one hand he was trying to placate the socio-cultural institutions of his day, including Queen Elizabeth's court, while with the other hand he was railing against those institutions. If, however, he wrote it soon after his release, that means that in moments of reflection, he grew to rage against what he saw as the injustice done him. The two possibilities show two different types of character and personalities. It doesn't seem possible at this point, with the information presently at hand, to know whether he was practicing the art of manipulative duplicity while saying one thing though feeling another or whether he was originally sincere in his efforts to regain Elizabeth I's favor and only grew antagonistic as time went by and reflection grew bitter. In either case, one thing is constant, at some point between 1592 and 1595, Ralegh so keenly perceived the duplicity in the institutions of England that he put voice to a poetic denunciation of them in the poem "The Lie."

To "Give Someone the Lie"

The premise of "The Lie," which is integral to the meaning of the poem, is that when the accused governing and socio-cultural institutions named in the poem deny the accusations charged against them, then the "soul," directed by the poetic persona, Ralegh himself, is to "give them the lie." This is an archaic (no longer known or used) expression that accused a person of being false and that was equivalent to proffering a challenge to a duel; it was a serious undertaking to "give a person the lie." In an era when a person's honor was inextricably tied to their courage to speak truthful words, to accuse someone of a lie was to accuse them of being dishonorable, cowardly and a liar. Duels were fought to resolve an affront as great as this, comprising as it does an attack against three of the highest virtues someone of Ralegh's era could possess. In "The Lie" Ralegh is setting forth the truth about the falseness of the institutions named and defying them to contradict his pronouncements.

Whom Does Ralegh Accuse and of What?
In the first stanza, Ralegh accuses the world in general of unspecified false doings: "give the world the lie." We can refine "world" to mean, as clarified before, the governing and socio-cultural institutions of England's Elizabethan era. Ralegh solicits the services of his "soul," "the body’s guest," on the "thankless errand" of giving "the world the lie," remembering that this expression means that Ralegh is accusing the world at large (as he knew it) of falseness and dishonorableness. It is important to note that Ralegh states that the truth of the soul's message will provide its right to speak. Ralegh calls this right the soul's "warrant" to speak: "truth shall be thy warrant." Having this "warrant," this authority to speak means that the soul can approach the "best," can "[f]ear not to touch the best," and can challenge even them with their falseness. The "best" would include the monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.
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.
It is also important to note Ralegh's initial tone of despair. His tone is devoid of hope when he writes "The Lie" as shown in his despairing words, "since I needs must die." Note, however, that this is a double-meaning, metaphorical death he speaks of: (1) he must die of a stab wound if he were to go on the "thankless errand" (which he won't); (2) he must die of poverty if he does not regain the favor of the Queen (though low on income, he is not devoid of it however). In this line and in keeping with the two possible scenarios describing his situation while writing "The Lie" (either [a] seeking favor while raging against the Queen in the Tower or [b] contemplating unhappy realizations after his release), Ralegh expresses through a metaphoric sense of impending death his forlorn, melancholy dejection. In 1592-1593, when scholars suppose Ralegh wrote "The Lie," it was not true that he was facing literal death (this was true twice later under King James I after Elizabeth's death in 1603). What was true was that without Elizabeth's favor and grants of privileges, Ralegh had no place at court, few sources of revenue and no adventure since the Queen granted all of these sources of honor, renown and riches. So, whether Ralegh is raging in the Tower or raging while destitute of hope afterward, he summons his soul to give the world the lie and accuses it of falseness by addressing one institution after another.

Court and Church
The first institutions Ralegh accuses are the foremost institutions of "the court" and "the church." While it might be tempting to think "court" means the Elizabethan justice system, that understanding would be incongruous for two reasons. First, Ralegh was not tried before his imprisonment under Elizabeth (he was later under James I). It was Elizabeth herself who order him sent to the Tower immediately upon his return in answer to her summons. Second, a judicial court of law is not readily described as "glowing" although a royal monarchical court is readily described as glowing and shinning. Therefore, while a case could readily be made that the Elizabethan judicial system was "rotten," "The Lie" presents a more compelling denunciation of the times if "court" is understood to mean the royal court of the English monarch.

What does Ralegh say, then, about the Elizabethan royal court? This is where Ralegh introduces the poetic device of irony, with a deeply bitter tone, that describes something by metaphorically associating it with the worst possible and opposite comparison that could be made. In his bitterly ironic accusation against the royal court, he says it "glows," but like "rotten wood" glows. If you've ever seen rotten wood, you know that it does not glow or "shine"; saying rotten wood glows or shines is bitterly ironic. Rotten wood has a disintegrated, crumbling surface that reflects only it's decomposing interior. Rotten wood is dull, not reflective; reflectivity is a needed quality for glow or shine. Rotten wood is crumbling and splintering; it is highly unappealing; it is the antithesis of that which "glows / And shines."
Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good, and doth no good.
Regarding the church, Ralegh accuses it of showing "what's good" but doing "no good." The compression of complex concepts in poetry renders a deeper sense of meaning arising from commonplace words. The meaning is often weakened when substituted by a paraphrase in prose. The deeper sense of meaning derived from Ralegh's bitterly ironic accusation against the church is that the church displays what's good but has no qualities of good itself: its goodness is a shallow facade (facade: an external illusionary, deceptive appearance). Thus the accusation speaks to the church's qualities and virtue rather than to its actions and charities, asserting that the church looks good--even preaches good ways to be--but is not good in itself: this parallels to the rotten wood that the royal court is compared to.


A potentate is a great and powerful sovereign ruler, like a monarch (the term is considered out-of-date for today's rulers). Here, Ralegh separates Queen Elizabeth from her court at large so he can deliver a few significant words pointed directly at her, although her identity is disguised and euphemized in the generalized term "potentate." As an aside, what Ralegh says here argues for "The Lie" having been written after his 1593 release from the Tower, perhaps a 1594 date, which would accord well with the first manuscript evidence. While in the Tower, he was trying to win back Elizabeth I's favor and would not have been likely to want to risk his diatribe falling into her hands thus cutting off all his chances of regaining favor. This argument complements the one pointing out that after his release Elizabeth I took nearly all the profit from the booty taken off the Madre de Dios (the Portuguese merchant ship or carrack taken earlier by Ralegh), leaving him almost penniless along with being exiled from court, which was virtually the same as being left without opportunities for monetary income.
The first bitterly ironic thing Ralegh says about "potentates" (meaning Queen Elizabeth I) is that "they live / Acting by others' action." This is a double-meaning word-play. It can mean that, acting, they pretend to be great while others perform great actions: they live vicariously doing nothing themselves, and they take credit for the real actions of others. It can also mean that, governing, they take actions as rulers (enact laws, imprison people, give favored ones advancement, etc) based on the revelations exposed by the real-life actions of others (govern based on the reports and council of those who have real experience of conflict with other kingdoms, etc). Then, with more bitter irony, Ralegh accuses potentates of being unloved in themselves but loved only because of their gifts: if not for their gifts of wealth and privilege, potentates would be unloved. He further ironically and bitterly asserts that the strength of the potentate (i.e., Elizabeth I) is illusionary and exists only because a faction of the aristocracy places the potentate in power and safeguards that power: "Not strong but by a faction."
Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others’ action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
"Men of high condition"

"[M]en of high condition, / That manage the estate" are easily identifiable as those who hold large estates, usually those who are ennobled with hereditary titles (like baron or earl) or who are knights, like Ralegh was, but it will take a little digging to understand who "them that brave it most" are. First, those "that manage the estate" are accused of doing so only for the purpose of "ambition" and by the practice of "hate." A little background and one or two definitions are needed to understand this accusation made by Ralegh.

Estates include the workers, the villagers, who provide the labor for the fields, the dairies, the textile carding, spinning and weaving. Part of the duties of estate holders is to tend to the needs, health and general well-being of these villagers and workers. If we look at literature for illustration of this precept, we can see it in two of Jane Austen's novels (Emma and Pride and Prejudice) wherein Emma goes to take care of a villager who is ill, Lady de Bourgh boasts about her involvement in the minutia of the lives of her villagers and Mr. Darcy is praised by his housekeeper for all the care, goodness and beneficence he extends to his villagers. This precept of estate managers caring for villagers and village workers is also illustrated by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina in the character of gentleman farmer Konstantin Dmitrievich Lëvin (who eventually marries Princess Kitty). One of the assumptions in a Christian Western country, like England was in the Elizabethan era, is that lovingkindness underlies this estate management, yet, with bitter irony, Ralegh says that "men of high condition, / That manage the estate" act out of "hate"; they do not act out of love. This was a serious accusation. His other accusation is that "Their purpose is ambition."

In the present day, "ambition" is an assumed quality for those who want to make something good of their lives: ambition is needed to get a post-high-school education that can form the background for a financially acceptable job opportunity; ambition is needed to learn how to excel on the job and earn promotions and raises; ambition is needed to improve your family's lifestyle and comforts. A now archaic meaning of "ambition," the meaning Ralegh is using, is quite different. In Ralegh's usage, "ambition" means someone has an "inordinate desire," a desire that is extreme and out-of-bounds, to gain "honor and preferment," to gain recognition, privilege and financial opportunity (think of lobbyists who besiege the Congress on behalf of their special interest groups demanding money for privileged undertakings). In Ralegh's time, ambition was as much a vice as was pride and boastfulness. Thus, Ralegh accuses managers of estates of doing an efficient job in order to ironically advance their own glory, power, pride and boastfulness. This is another serious charge that impeaches a person's virtue and character.
Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate.
"Them that brave it most"  
Who are those who "brave it most" and who "beg for more by spending"? This is a very specific group of men, not a general category of a type of person. Ralegh turns his thoughts back the royal court with his accusation against those who "brave it most." Using an idiom that is no longer popular except in literary reference, Ralegh is singling out those male courtiers (courtiers are those who attend a monarch at court) who love to make a flashy and "splendid" appearance: they wear jewel studded clothes cut of the finest cloths adorned with the finest laces and worn in the most dashing styles. Now we can more easily understand how these individuals can "beg for more by spending": they beg for the attention of the Queen by spending their fortunes on their finery in a manner that we perhaps can only imagine today. Ralegh's accusation against them is that "in their greatest cost" (most costly expenditures) they seek "nothing but commending." "Commending" is a word we need a definition for if this accusation is going to make the sense Ralegh wanted it to make.

Today the meaning of "commend" is associated with praise based upon approval: you are commended because of approval of your actions, etc; something is commended to you because of praise for its qualities, etc; you commend someone because you approve of something associated with them. In Ralegh's time, "commending" was a function under feudal law by which a person or a person's estate could be placed under the protection of a more powerful person, like a monarch, in exchange for their undivided loyalty to the monarch. Ralegh is accusing these people of spending their wealth just so that they might catch the attention and affection of the Queen in hopes of becoming the recipient of "commending," or protection and wealth, since the monarch had the power to distribute wealth to favored ones (and these favors and distributions typically went to the monarch's male courtiers because only males could become "vassals" capable of going to war to defend the monarch). For a literary reference to this type of wealth distribution, recall how in Beowulf Hrothgar and Wealhtheow distributed gifts among their followers in Heorot Hall; they too were potentates who were loved for giving gifts.
Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who, in their greatest cost,
Seek nothing but commending.
There is double-meaning word-play along with bitter irony in these insulting accusations of irrelevance and cowardliness--and a bit of bitter regret and self-accusation since Ralegh himself spent his fair share of wealth on braving it for commending--in the contrast between "braving it" (dressing with splendor) and seeking "commending" (seeking protection and wealth): the brave don't need protection but they splendidly "brave it" and expend a "greatest cost" to receive the protection and wealth of "commending" while they might instead have funded their own expeditions.

Ralegh switches tempo and emphasis at this point of the poem. He turns from accusing persons to accusing intellect, talents, fortune, favor and goodness. Each of these he first personifies, giving each human capacity to be addressed (by his personified soul) and to hear, to understand, and to respond. The soul who is carrying Ralegh's bitterly ironic messages throughout the kingdom has the same instructions for these as for the first: if they reject the accusation, give them the lie (declare their falseness).

Qualities and Natures from Zeal Through Favor

Zeal, Love, Time, Flesh
In these one-line accusations to personified qualities, natures, elements, skills, charms, Ralegh bitterly contrasts each to its ironic opposite, as in "time" ironically lacking motion or "love" bitterly and ironically being lust. The meaning of each line is dependent upon the meaning of the words used, for instance, if we don't know the true meanings of "zeal" and "lust," we will miss the bitterly ironic nature of the comparison. As illustrations, "zeal" is heightened eagerness to achieve a religious or political goal, while "lust" is an overwhelmingly strong physical or psychological desire, often, but not exclusively, sexual desire.
  • "Tell zeal it wants devotion": Zeal has eagerness but no loyalty; devotion is defined as strong loyalty to someone.
  • "Tell love it is but lust": Love among monarch and courtiers is only a strong but empty physical or psychological desire, devoid of love: love itself is a strong commitment of regard and affection for someone you are devoted to.
  • "Tell time it is but motion": Time is that which is measured (1) in age, seasons, days or (2) in occasions of importance. In a double-meaning word-play, the first meaning of "time," especially during the Elizabethan era, symbolizes scientific progress and humanism, yet Ralegh declares this momentous passage of time and ideas to be nothing more than motion from philosophical place to place. The second meaning of "time" symbolizes the achievements and grand occasions marking the reign of Elizabeth I, yet Ralegh ironically reduces these grand times to mere motion without even a destination.
  • "Tell flesh it is but dust": In Cristian theology, the body, or the "flesh," was identified as the "temple of God" wherein the "Spirit of God dwells" (New Testament, 1 Corinthians 3:16). Ralegh is employing a bitterly ironic device to blast this conceptualization by connecting the living, sacred body to the dust of death: "all are of the dust, and all turn to dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:20, Genesis 3:19): flesh is but nothing; it is but dust.
  • "And wish them not reply": In a slight twist on the running variations of the repeated final couplet, Ralegh bids his soul to "wish" these addressees might not reply. Perhaps he wishes their personifications might acknowledge the truth of his accusations because they are qualities of such value: Ralegh may hope they will have the integrity to admit their failings.
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,
Age, Honor, Beauty and Favor

Ralegh now undertakes to accuse the personified characteristics of age, honor, beauty and favor. Two, age and beauty, are natural attributes that exist and deteriorate, come and go as nature wills. The other two, honor and favor, are human characteristics that can be developed or neglected as an act of an individual's will. He gives each a bitterly ironic comparison to the thing that is most repulsive to it.
  • "Tell age it daily wasteth": Aging is a painful expectation of life and a thing that Shakespeare described well through the character of Jaques in As You Like It. The one hope is that aging is a prolonged process that is not immediate, yet Ralegh bitterly charges age with the irony of daily wasting of the body: age is not deferred to the future; it is daily encountered.
  • "Tell honor how it alters": A person's honor is comprised of strong principles of right and good that mold their life. Ralegh accuses personified honor of altering so that the principles that guide today cannot be relied upon for future dependability. The main import is not that these principles change over time but that honor is unreliable, being built upon undependable principles in the first place. Honor is weak and alterable, like something "chasing after the wind" as in Ecclesiastes 6:9. Honor is not strong principles but alterable principles, so it cannot be depended upon.
  • "Tell beauty how she blasteth": Beauty is a natural physical quality that endows a person with appeal and attractiveness: it is a source of natural joy and pleasure. In a bitter ironic twist, Ralegh accuses personified beauty of "blasting": "she blasteth." In this usage, the meaning of the word is to make something shrivel, to make something dry up, to make something wither and die. Beauty is accused of bitterly attacking those it endows, leaving behind that which is shriveled, dried up, dead. Ralegh uses bitter irony to compare one of the greatest physical attributes to something the most different from it: a blasting blight.
  • "Tell favour how it falters": The meanings of "favour" (spelled "favor" in the U.S.) and "falter" need to be clearly described before this accusation--aimed primarily at that "potentate" who imprisoned him, Queen Elizabeth--can be correctly understood. In this usage, "favour" means the advantage that comes from being genuinely liked and approved of by someone powerful. The meaning of "falter" in this usage is in present day an obscure one: few people now think of or speak of "falter" in this nearly forgotten meaning. The meaning of "falter" as Ralegh uses it is to lose faith in someone, to lose the vigor of affection for someone, to doubt and abandon someone. This concept of faltering surely rings true to Elizabeth I's fury over Ralegh's transgression that led to her dropping him from her favor and imprisoning him. With the lost favor of this particular potentate in mind, this accusation against personified "favour" is certainly bitter and certainly ironic since faltering is an antithetical quality to the nature of genuine "favour."
  • "And as they shall reply": In another interesting twist on the ending couplet of each stanza, Ralegh makes it quite clear to the messenger soul that personified age, honor, beauty and favor will absolutely reply. In other words, they will absolutely refute the accusations against them: they will deny and challenge the accusations since they themselves are utter falsehoods. We know this about this line of Ralegh's instructions to the soul and about these four entities because Ralegh chose the word "as" to explain what the soul should expect. In this usage, "as" means since or because. A paraphrase would be: "Since they shall rebut the charge / Give every one the lie."
Wit and Wisdom
Next Ralegh undertakes to decimate the pretensions of personified "wit" and "wisdom" and to prove them to be the opposite of what they profess to be. Ralegh's complicated word-play requires understanding what "wit" and "wisdom" were thought to be and what Ralegh decries them as being. First, in ironic word-play, Ralegh calls upon two separate definitions of "wrangles," "tickle" and "niceness" to denounce "wit" as being irrelevant triviality, the opposite of what it professes to be. Second, with a very revealing word choice in "entangle," Ralegh denounces "wisdom" as a confused mass of perplexing complications, too over-wise for anyone's good.

What were "wit" and "wisdom" thought to be in Ralegh's time? Ralegh's use of "wit" is a more complicated, now archaic, notion than wisdom. Wit was thought to be an intellectual social conversational skill that set the witty apart from the average person. Wit was the interesting, intriguing and humorous quality that allowed fast, amusing conversation during which especially insightful analogies were made between dissimilar things: wit was part of amusing, engaging repartee. Wit was the endowment of coveted intellectual grace, charming and amusing those upon whom wit's bounty was bestowed. Wisdom--whether in Ralegh's time of ours--is exceptional knowledge, understanding, insight into and judgement of what is right, good and true combined with the ability to make sound use of knowledge and discernment: wisdom gives clarity in the midst of confusion and sound understanding in the midst of perplexity. Wisdom was--and is--one of the highest human characteristics because it leads toward goodness and virtue while protecting against evil and vice.

A paraphrase of each description, the one for "wit" and the one for "wisdom," and an explanation of old fashioned, archaic or obsolete definitions will show what Ralegh was bitterly and ironically accusing personified "wit" and "wisdom" of being. Critical words have double meanings, e.g., meanings of appealing and flimsy for "nice," and contribute through double-meaning word-play to the points Ralegh wants to make.  

Paraphrase of "Tell wit how much it wrangles / In tickle points of niceness": Tell amusing, insightful repartee how much it noisily brawls and peevishly quarrels about curious but false, flimsy trivialites and analogies that crumble before logic's scrutiny, wit being trivial irrelevancy masquerading as clever insight.
Wrangle: To brawl and quarrel peevishly and noisily.
Tickle: (1) appealing to a person's sense of humor or curiosity. (2) Obsolete easily proven false and flimsy logically; wavering, unstable.
Niceness: (1) Old fashioned fastidious, fussy, finicky detail. (2) Obsolete unimportant, trivial, irrelevant.
Paraphrase of "Tell wisdom she entangles / Herself in overwiseness": Tell knowledgeable judgement she twists and snarls, perplexes and bewilders herself, being far too much more wise than is possible, wisdom lacking capacity or discernment to know right and true from otherwise.
Entangle: to twist into confusion, snarl; to complicate; to perplex, bewilder.
Over- (prefix): to have an excess of something; to be or have much more than is desirable.
Over-wiseness: having an excess of qualities related to being wise; having false pretensions to being wise.
In another variation of the continually varied ending couplet, Ralegh presumes "wit" and "wisdom" will reply--being wit and wisdom--and that they will refute and counter his accusations. He therefore instructs the soul to straight away, without hesitation or pause, "give them both the lie": "Straight give them both 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.
Physic, Skill, Charity, Law
Ralegh's next targets are those things that are meant to be sources of help in society: medicine, understanding, benevolent gifts and the law. Medicine, or physic, is meant to help by healing the population when they are ill or injured. Skill in its obsolete meaning of discerning understanding is meant to help by binding people together tough they may be in the midst of misunderstandings and disputes. Charity, the act of love that gives what is lacking to those in need, is meant to help by giving compassion and beneficence. The law is meant to help by establishing an ordered society wherein rights are protected [in Ralegh's time the Magna Carta and the corpus of Common Law defined protected rights in favor of the aristocracy without a vast regard for the peasants]. Ralegh, in bitter irony (which reflects his rupture with Elizabeth I), accuses the personification of each of being its own opposite.
Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention.
  • Physic, (archaic) the medical profession, is actually "boldness" instead of help, being forward, impudent and breaking the rules of propriety.
  • Skill, (obsolete) is said to be understanding, discernment, but is instead actually pretension, artifice, fraudulent, attempting to seem to be more than it truly is.
  • Charity is meant to be the warmest act of beneficence possible--giving without asking, providing where sustenance is lacking--but truly is coldness, acting without heart, giving without loving.
  • Law, the foundation of order and protection, is nothing but contention: striving against others in argument, competition, rivalry and disagreement.

Fortune, Nature, Friendship, Justice

Next, Ralegh accuses four things that are prized for giving good and bounty: fortune, nature, friendship, justice. Interestingly, because of the innate dual characteristics of each, Ralegh's bitterly ironic accusations are true for all cases, for example, nature is both rebirth and decay, each in its turn.
  • "Tell fortune of her blindness": Personified fortune gives luck, chance, life's outcome, and it is desired that fortune favor us with wealth and luck. Ralegh accuses fortune of blindness on account of which fortune unseeingly distributes good and bounty to the deserving and the undeserving. [Ralegh plays upon the truth that fortune, being blind, gives fortune and misfortune to the good or the bad, accusing fortune of partiality to misfortune.]
  • "Tell nature of decay": Personified nature is the bearer and giver of renewal, youthfulness and bounty. Ralegh accuses nature of being the bearer and giver of decay instead of bounty. [Ralegh plays upon the truth that nature goes through a continual cycle of birth and decay, accusing it of dedication to decay.]
  • "Tell friendship of unkindness": Personified friendship bestows devotion, caring and kindness in every storm of life. Ralegh accuses friendship of being, in reality, the bestower of unkindness, thus again hearkening back to his falling out with Queen Elizabeth. [Ralegh plays upon the true dual nature of friendship wherein it can give kindness or unkindness, accusing it of favoring unkindness.]
  • "Tell justice of delay": Personified justice--said to be speedy in its administration--gives a true reckoning of deeds, honors its moral obligation, has integrity and speedily renders what is due to each. Ralegh accuses justice of being slow in coming. Justice is therefore not morally rendering what is due and is guilty of delay in administering integrity, fairness, rightness, equity for deeds done, hinting here that he believes his misdeed in marrying Elizabeth Trogmorton was insignificant when weighed in the balanced with the great deeds he has done in his Queen's name. [Ralegh plays upon the true, intricate nature of justice, wherein obligation and integrity are coupled with speed, accusing it of failing through delay in delivering what is just and right.]
Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay.
Arts, Schools

Ralegh next turns his attention to the arts of humanity and to the teachers of the arts. The arts of humanity are practiced by artists, musicians, philosophers and writers of literature. The arts are taught in schools, and, in Ralegh's time in particular, schools meant both places of learning and philosophical doctrines of learning, as in the expression "different schools of thought." The arts, he accuses, are not good, are not without defect, and vary according to the opinion of whoever is judging them.
Soundness: being without defect in truth, enduring character or goodness.
Vary: to be changeable in form, substance, character.
Esteem: (1) Archaic judgement or opinion. (2) valuation or estimation of value. (3) to hold in high regard; to respect, value, prize.
Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Using these three meanings of "esteem," Ralegh conveys the complicated idea that the arts have no "soundness" in and of themselves because the arts have defects in capturing truth and goodness and in genuinely enduring qualities. In other words, the arts produce works that are valueless; they are not estimated as having high worth. Critical opinion of art works are changed from one learned person to the next.
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
As Ralegh asserts, if arts are changeable because they lack soundness, then schools--both the teachers of learning and the doctrines governing learning in academic, religious, political and social thought--lack "profoundness." In bitter irony, he says they lack the penetrating knowledge, the deep insight and understanding that they purport to have and teach. Ralegh accuses schools--both teachers and doctrinal systems of thought--of putting their confidence in the created appearance of truth and profundity rather than putting their confidence in what is honest and true. He accuses them of perpetrating a deception, which again is a very serious accusation.
Schools: (1) gathering of students being educated by teachers. (2) Obsolete teachers in a medieval university. (3) a doctrinal system or method of knowledge.
Profoundness: penetrating the depths of knowledge; having thoughtful, deep insight and understanding into knowledge.
Stand on: to depend on with confidence
Seeming: to appear to be something whether the appearance is given truly or falsely; an outward deceptive appearance; what something seems to be on the face of things.

Ralegh Summarily Restates His Case Using Faith, Error, Manhood, Virtue

In the last four accusations that Ralegh makes, he summarily restates the essence of his entire accusatory argument. To summarily restate something means to restate what's been discussed in a brief, concise manner with few words; to restate a discussion in a narrow compass of expressions (narrow compass: narrow range of ideas and words) in order to bring the message home to the listener, in order to make the message evident and clear. What Ralegh has to say about "faith," "country," "manhood," "virtue" and fleeing, erring, pity and preferring encapsulate all that he has said above. He can do this summarily because of the depth of meaning in each word he chooses.    

"Tell faith it’s fled the city"
"Faith" is (1) belief in religious scriptures, which affect someone's life and traits; (2) loyalty, fidelity to promises and allegiance to duty; (3) agreement to truth based on someone's veracity; trust or confidence in someone's intentions. To flee ("fled" past tense) is to run away in an alarmed and cowardly way in order to avoid or escape danger. Ralegh says that personified faith--which includes religious faith, faith in someone's loyalty and allegiance, faith in honorable intentions--has fled, like a frightened coward, from the city, meaning London and symbolizing Elizabeth I. Her court, the schools, brilliant wits, the church and virtue, all the things Ralegh accuses are also encompassed in the deep symbolism underlying "faith."

"Tell how the country erreth"
To err, "erreth," is (1) to be mistaken or to offend; (2) to stray or to blunder in intellectual truth, judgement and opinion; (3) to go off from a true course; to wander and roam without a path of duty, rectitude or morality. Ralegh laments that the country, England under Elizabeth's reign, is mistaken and offends; has blundered and strayed from intellectual truth and sound judgement; is wandering about devoid of duty, religion, morality. This lamenting accusation is aimed at great men, at schools, teachers, the arts, at Elizabeth's loyalty and duty to her friends, at the church's pretensions of good and charity, just to name a few.

"Tell manhood shakes off pity"
"Manhood" is (1) being a man, no longer a child; a male human being endowed with virtue, plagued with vice; (2) a man's endowment with qualities of courage, bravery, resolve, steadfastness. To "shake off" is to get rid of something, to disassociate yourself from something, to disavow something. "Pity" is (1) religious reverence, piety; (2) compassion for the suffering of others; commiseration; (3) something that prompts or causes grief or regret. Ralegh accuses men of Elizabeth's realm of disassociating themselves from, of disavowing association with pity as religious piety, as compassion, as regret or grief over having erred. Ralegh calls up the images invoked earlier of cold charity, pretentious religion, rotted wood, factious potentates, love and flesh that are dust, beauty that blasts and blights, a society of irrelevant men who "brave it" for "commending" but who coldly, actively renounce and reject pity in all its forms.

"Tell virtue least preferreth"
"Virtue" is (1) (obsolete) a man's valor and courage; (2) a man's meritoriousness, his worth; (3) a man's integrity, spiritual purity; honoring of duty; loyalty; morality. "Preferreth," preferring or to prefer, is (1) (archaic) someone receiving a recommendation or gaining favor (as Ralegh hoped to gain a renewal of Queen Elizabeth's favor); (2) someone selecting or choosing what is of higher worth, esteem or value; (3) someone gaining a higher rank in dignity, office or honor. Ralegh asserts that a man's courage, worth, integrity, purity and loyalty (and, yes, he means "a man's" because in his society, those were attributes defining men, not women), a man's "virtue," was not the basis for preferring, for gaining favor or rank--it was not the basis of selection, of what was chosen as good, valuable, worthy of esteem.
With these words, Ralegh hearkens back to all his earlier words to the soul, words about the thanklessness of the errand; about the court's rottenness; about the failures of justice, law, friendship, charity; about the falseness of nature, wit, beauty; about the decay of zeal, flesh, wisdom. He hearkens back to his caution: "Fear not to touch the best." Through this stanza, Ralegh hearkens back to and in few words reiterates all he has said before, and Ralegh tells the soul that if these dare reply, do not spare them the accusation of falseness: "if they do reply, / Spare not to give 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.
Paraphrase of the Final Stanza: "Stab at thee he that will"
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.
Paraphrase: So when you have, as I commanded you, finished disclosing secrets without caution, in quiet tones--although instead of caution to challenge falseness deserves no less than piercing language and a deadly challenge--let any who dare do so stab back at you because no stabbing wound can the soul kill.

Ralegh's choice to send his soul with his message becomes clearer with this stanza. "I must needs die" of the opening stanza indicates that he could die if any of those to whom he were "to give the lie" in person were to "stab" back at him. However, stab as those accused might, they cannot kill the soul he sends to speak in his behalf. In other words, if the soul gives the lie to the accused, they can never kill it by stabbing back, although they could kill Ralegh in if he delivered his accusations in person. The soul speaks quietly, in a spiritual murmur, although the falseness of the accused deserves to have the accusations spoken in a piercing, incisive, wounding, penetrating--i.e., stabbing--shout.

Thus Ralegh takes us from the last stanza back to the first stanza, illuminating the language of the first with the meaning of the last, specifically illuminating "I needs must die" with "No stab the soul can kill." In between his beginning and his ending, Ralegh has, through double- and triple-meaning word-plays, through harsh accusations with bitterly ironic contrasts, through complaints laid at Queen Elizabeth's feet, taken us through a world accused of falseness to his lament occasioned by the falseness of all, for all have, in Ralegh's eyes, abandoned and betrayed him: "Tell faith it's fled the city; / ... / Tell virtue least preferreth."

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danielle1978 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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Scholarly debate has focused on whether Raleigh himself was the author of this poem, and given the fact that Raleigh's execution (in 1618) took place ten years after the poem itself was in circulation lends credence to such a debate. Nevertheless, the narrator/poet in "The Lie" presents several criticisms against the hypocrisy of various institutions (namely the Church and State), and questions the tension between truth and hypocrisy, especially within the context of the elite. The meaning (or thematic elements) are put into place within the first stanza, wherein the narrator demands that his soul embark on a mission to expose the hypocrisy and falsehood of those in powerful positions because the truth of their actions will inevitably prevail. In a nutshell, the poem serves as a powerful abnegation of the very institutions society valued (and in many ways) continues to value today. 

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