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).
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:
- Ralegh's life situation c. 1592-1594 when he wrote "The Lie."
- The objective he intended when writing the poem.
- The ironic contrasts with which he blasts the institutions of his day.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others’ action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
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.
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.
- "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,
- "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."
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.
Entangle: to twist into confusion, snarl; to complicate; to perplex, bewilder.
Over-wiseness: having an excess of qualities related to being wise; having false pretensions to being wise.
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.
- 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
- "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.
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.
Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
"Tell faith it’s fled the city"
"Tell how the country erreth"
"Tell manhood shakes off pity"
"Tell virtue least preferreth"
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.
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."
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.