The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Given that “The Lie” is now Sir Walter Ralegh’s best-known poem, it would be ironic if the French critic Pierre Lefranc were correct in his assertion, in Sir Walter Ralegh, Ecrivain, L’oeuvre et les idées (1968), that it was not written by Ralegh. The earliest known manuscripts, which date from approximately 1595, are unsigned, as is the first printed version in Francis Davison’s A Poetical Rapsody (1608). Lefranc argues that the poem is obviously the work of a Puritan, which Ralegh emphatically was not. Lefranc further argues that the poem is too clumsy and tedious to be Ralegh’s. The vast majority of English critics, however, agree that the attribution is correct, claiming that the impression of Puritan sentiment is derived from a too-literal reading of a satire and observing that the poem’s rhythm, based on iambic trimeters with five initial trochaic feet, closely resembles poems that are unmistakably Ralegh’s. The English critics also disagree with the contention that the poem is clumsy or tedious, although its tempo is certainly furious enough to give it a reckless quality, and it hammers home its point with a rain of blows whose quantity is suggestive of overkill.

The thirteen stanzas of “The Lie” comprise a series of instructions addressed to the soul, famously characterized as “the body’s guest,” demanding that it strip away the poses and pretenses with which social life is armored. Each six-line stanza...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Lie” is a poem about disillusionment, and its method is admirably suited to its subject, for disillusionment is a process that proceeds by inexorable degrees, stripping one layer of falsity after another until the last is gone. Ralegh employs the repetitive rhythm of the poem to build up a relentless surge that cannot be interrupted until it has taken its corrosive task to its logical end point. The suggestion of overkill that seems tedious to Lefranc is, in fact, entirely appropriate to the project.

Disillusionment is the principal stock-in-trade of satire, which was newly fashionable as a device when “The Lie” was written. The satirical method is one of contemptuous exaggeration that magnifies faults so aggressively that no half measures are tolerated. “The Lie” accepts this extremism wholeheartedly, accelerating as it moves through its phases of generality to the point at which each of the soul’s addressees is condemned by a single, dismissive adjective: “Tell fortune of her blindnesse,/ tell nature of decay,/ Tell friendship of unkindnesse,/ tell justice of delay.” The poet is not stating that all these things are worthless but that they are flawed. The essence of the poem’s argument is that nothing is perfect—except for the soul itself, the measure of all these things that “no stabcan kill.”

Because the form and devices of the poem are determined by its subject matter, which reflects and embodies the process...

(The entire section is 572 words.)