Themes and Meanings

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No one knows exactly when “The Lie” was composed, but it surely does not belong to the 1580’s when Ralegh’s career was in the ascendant. When he was knighted in 1584, he was given a monopoly in the highly profitable wine trade and authorized to conquer and colonize distant lands in the queen’s name; for some years thereafter, he was on top of the world, and he spent forty thousand pounds of England’s taxes on exercises of bravado for which tobacco and the potato must have seemed precious little recompense. No man in that position would have written “The Lie,” although the stanza that exhorts the soul to “Tell them that brave it most,/ they beg for more by spending” might well refer back to such golden days.

There is a strong temptation to assign “The Lie” to the year 1592, when Ralegh, who had been displaced from the queen’s affections by Essex, was nevertheless sent to the Tower of London for making love to one of her maids of honor (Bess Throckmorton, his future wife). It is easy enough to imagine Ralegh whiling away the time of his not entirely just incarceration with exactly such reflections on folly and excess. If Ralegh did write “The Lie” during his first spell in the Tower, its lack of nihilistic implication is clearly demonstrated in his subsequent career. By 1595, he was out adventuring again, this time financed from his own coffers.

If Ralegh did spend his first incarceration in “giving the lie” to all the delusions to which he had formerly fallen prey, perhaps it is both entirely natural and beautifully ironic that he spent so much time thereafter manufacturing illusions to sell to others. The Scottish philosopher David Hume described Ralegh’s The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596) as “full of the greatest and most palpable lies that were ever attempted to be imposed on the credulity of mankind.” After being imprisoned by King James I on suspicion of treason, he talked his way out again—though not for thirteen years—with tasty rumors of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that he set out in search of in 1616. James eventually had him beheaded in 1618 for piracy against the Spanish (whose Princess Infanta was about to marry Prince Charles), but such was the sympathy of the people that no other victim of the royal axe is credited with quite so many stirring last words, including “What matter how the head lie, so the heart be right?” For all its froth and fury, the heart of “The Lie” is right.

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