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.)