Please explain and paraphrase "On The Life of Man," by Sir Walter Raleigh.

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Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Here's the poem, in the original with, I believe, the original title, with notes and source included:

On the Life of Man          
Sir Walter Ralegh

What is our life? a play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
When we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spector is,                  5
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that's no Jest.  

[AJ Notes:

musicke of division,, the entr'acte, the music that marked
            the division between acts.
tyring houses, on the Elizabethan stage, the 'tiring house',
            from "attiring house" was the room where the actors
            got dressed before a performance.
spector, spectator, with a play on 'spectre'.
still, always, ever.
latest, last.]


The Anchor Anthology of Sixteenth-Century Verse.
Richard S. Sylvester, Ed.
Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974. 341.

The poem compares life to participating in a play.  In short, the speaker writes that:

  • our life=a play that's passionate
  • our laughter=the music played between acts of a play
  • our mother's wombs=the place where we get dressed to prepare for the short life that is a comedy
  • heaven=a sharp audience that corrects us when we behave badly
  • graves=that which hides us from the heat of the sun (life's difficulties?), and is like the drawing of a curtain when a play is over
  • this is how we march toward our death, and death is serious, not funny

Thus, life is a comedy, to the speaker, but death is not. I'll leave it to you to draw the meanings from the metaphors.

jennera | Student

"What is our life" is Ralegh's comment on the transience of life, similar to Shakespeare's sentiment that we are all merely players on a stage for a brief time, a metaphor repeated by Ralegh when he says that our life is "a play of passion," an allusion to medieval passion plays about the sufferings of Christ before his crucifixion.  Ralegh's tone is, of course, much more light-hearted than that of a passion play, but there is a tenuous connection.

Ralegh uses a mother's womb as a metaphor for our preparation for life--"where we are dressed"--which, unfortunately, is "this short comedy."  The concept of life as comedy is not meant to suggest that all ends happily but refers to Ralegh's belief that our lives are essentially meaningless, and certainly short, and are therefore not meant to be taken too seriously.

While we live, "Heaven," a metaphor for God, looks on and renders judgment on our behavior, particularly on those who "doth act amiss," but Ralegh has nothing meaningful to say about how we conduct our lives because he immediately moves us to the graveyard and our graves.  With some graveyard humor, Ralegh points out that graves have a useful purpose: to save us from sunburn.

The metaphor of life as drama (or comedy) is carried through the last three lines in which graves become the curtains on a stage that come down when the play is over.  All that is left for us, the players in this brief comedy, is to die "in earnest," that is, really die, not just "die" on the stage exhibiting some poor acting.

Even though Ralegh uses a common metaphor for life, a play, his tone is humorous and light throughout, which befits a comedy, and we are meant to understand that life is like a play, a diversion, that is very short and relatively insignificant.

paru14 | Student

Thanks, you've helped me a lot . ;)

Can i have this in deep analysis ???

Thanks for ur kindness (again)

shadankurdi | Student

thanks  for this answer