The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

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.

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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 concludes with an injunction that any reply should be stoutly met: The last line of each stanza (except the thirteenth) is a variant of the phrase “and give the world the lie.” Following the introductory stanza, the main series moves through three phases. In the first phase (a single stanza) the soul is commanded to tell the court that “it glowes,/ and shines like rotten wood” and the Church that “it showes/ whats good, and doth no good.”

In the second phase, which comprises three stanzas, the soul is instructed to address itself more generally to potentates, “men of high condition,” and “them that brave it most.” The potentates are gently reminded that they are “not loved unless they give”; the men of high condition are attacked far more vituperatively because “their purpose is ambition/ their practise onely hate”; the third group, by contrast, is let off more lightly than the addressees of any other stanza, it merely being said that “they beg for more by spending,/ Who in their greatest cost/ like nothing but commending.” In the third and longest phase (seven stanzas), the soul is commanded to penetrate the illusion, each in its turn, of zeal, love, time, and flesh; age, honor, beauty, and favor; wit and wisdom; “Phisicke” (medicine), skill, charity, and law; fortune, nature, friendship, and justice; arts and “schooles” (philosophy); and faith, manhood, and virtue. The last stanza gives the screw of cynicism one last turn in conceding that “to give the lie,/ deserves no lesse then stabbing” but notes triumphantly that “no stab thy soule can kill.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

“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 and progress of disillusionment, care must be taken in evaluating the implications of its argument. In spite of its relentlessly downbeat thrust, the poem is not as nihilistic as it might appear at first glance, nor is it atheistic or puritanical as its early detractors suggested. “The Lie” is not atheistic because all its charges are directed against earthly institutions and human endeavors. It is not puritanical because it makes no distinctions and offers no policies. It is, in fact, entirely concerned with admitting and accepting the truth and not at all concerned with organizing behavior. It advises the inner being to be perceptive and suspicious of all imposture, but it advises no more than that. It is an angry poem, but its wrath is wry rather than righteous, directed inward rather than outward; although the soul is directed to do a great deal of “telling,” the entities that are to be told are ideas rather than actual individuals. The soul that the author is admonishing is his own and so are the ideas; the only person who is under attack is the poet himself.

When the soul is told to “Tell Potentates they live,/ acting by others action,” Ralegh undoubtedly has his former patron Queen Elizabeth in mind, just as he has the earl of Essex, the rival who replaced Ralegh as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, in mind when he refers to “men of high condition,” but what he is doing is instructing himself to recognize and understand their agendas. The next stanza, addressed to “them that brave it most” (who else but Ralegh?), asks that he should also recognize and understand his own agenda and its built-in flaws. The whole composition is a matter of the poet standing aside from himself and looking back with a coldly clinical and uncompromising eye. Such an imaginative sidestep is not unprecedented, but the measure of “The Lie” as a literary work is the authority, economy, and forcefulness of the manner in which that self-analytical act is accomplished.

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Themes