What does the poem "On the Life of Man" by Sir Walter Ralegh express?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"On the Life of Man" by Sir Walter Raleigh has a message similar to Shakespeare's famous statement in As You Like It Act II scene vii:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;

To look at it closely, let's first clear up some of the phrasing as it is explained on Luminarium.org: "play of passion" refers to a dramatic play, meaning a dramatic life; "musick of division" is the music that divides the acts of a play; "tyring houses" the rooms where actors change costumes (attiring; changing attire); "spector" is a word play misspelling of spectator that combines it with specter (ghost), thus bringing up an allusion to audiences living and dead.

In a poetic conceit (i.e., a long poetic comparison of two unlike things) comparing life to a play, Sir Walter Raleigh is saying that life is a drama and that the moments of mirth (happiness and laughter) are fleeting moments, as fleeting as the music that marks the space between acts of a play. Having dressed for the drama play in the womb, we enter our short stretch of life, which Raleigh ironically compares to a comedy. You know it's ironic because the whole conceit compares life to a painful drama.

The next four lines of the ten line poem written in five couplets compares God ("Heaven the Judicious sharpe spector") to the audience at the play, saying God takes note of those who do wrong ("who doth act amisse").  Sir Walter ends the conceit by comparing the grave, which is a metaphor for death, to the final curtain ending a play.

In the final couplet, he indicates that he has described how we march through our dramas to our final and eternal rest in the grave. His final note implies that while a play has an end but begins again and even again, our final curtain at the grave is in earnest with no repeat performances ("we dye in earnest, that's no Jest.").

jennera | Student

All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts. A well known quote from his contemporary William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh explores the same idea about human mortality and transience, and the insignificance of worldly achievement. It was on October 29th 1618 that Sir Walter Raleigh was put to death by King James I. A rakish and shady character he left a legacy of great literature and this particular work was composed while he was confined to the Tower of London about five years before his execution and where he wrote his History of the World, for which he is best remembered.

It is with unclouded irony that Sir Raleigh answers his question about life considering the adventurousness and sometimes absurd way he lived. After a brave, brutal and romantic life he met his death fourteen years after he was convicted for his part in the Cobham Treason against King James I; here he points out clearly and with exactness where the jest ends.