The Lie (poem)

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Not to be confused with The Lie: Evolution.
For the 1914 film, see The Lie (1914 film).

Poet Background

Raleigh, Sir Walter (1552?-1618) English explorer, courtier, poet, and prose writer. One of the favorites of Queen Elizabeth between 1581 and 1592, Raleigh helped his friend Edmund Spenser arrange for the publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene; also during this period he sent several expeditions to North America, though the Queen would not allow him to make the voyages himself. He fell from Elizabeth's favor in 1592, according to legend, because of his seduction of one of her maids of honor. He took advantage of being in the Queen's bad graces by making in 1595 an expeditionary voyage to South America, which he described in the colorful (and fanciful) Discovery of Guiana. He was reinstated at court during the last years of Elizabeth's reign, but at the accession of James I he was imprisoned on a flimsy charge of treason. He narrowly escaped execution, and was detained in the Tower (though in reasonable comfort) for the next thirteen years. In 1616 he was released on the promise to James I to discover gold in South America, providing that he neither intruded on Spanish possessions nor pirated Spanish ships, Unfortunately, Raleigh attacked a Spanish settlement, and on his return to England was condemned and executed. A true courtier poet, Raleigh did not publish his poetry but had it circulated in manuscript. As a result, only a few of his poems have come down to the present day, "Cynthia," a long poem in honor of the Queen, was highly praised by Spenser, but only a fragment has survived. Among his best-known poems are "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," an answer to Christopher Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd"; "The Lie"; "The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage"; and the sonnet beginning "Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay," prefixed to Spenser's Faerie Queene. In addition to a prose History of the World (of which only one volume was completed), Raleigh wrote a narrative of the sea baffle between the Revenge and a Spanish warship in which his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, was killed; Tennyson's ballad "The Revenge" is largely based on Raleigh's account. The legend of the courteous Sir Walter spreading his cloak over a puddle that the Queen might cross dry-shod is mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in Kenilworth.

The Lie is a political and social criticism poem probably written by Sir Walter Raleigh circa 1592. Speaking in the imperative mood throughout, he commands his soul to go "upon a thankless errand" and tell various people and organizations of their misdeeds and wrongdoings. And if they object, Raleigh commands, publicly accuse them to be lying, or "give them the lie." To "give the lie" was a common phrase in Raleigh's time of writing.

The Lie

Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.

Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What's good, and doth no good:
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie.

Tell potentates, they live
Acting by others' action;
Not loved unless they give,
Not strong but by a faction.
If potentates reply,
Give potentates the lie.

Tell men of high condition,
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate:
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell them that brave it most,
They beg for more by spending,
Who, in their greatest cost,
Seek nothing but commending.
And if they make reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell zeal it wants devotion;
Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it metes but motion;
Tell flesh it is but dust:
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie.

Tell age it daily wasteth;
Tell honour how it alters;
Tell beauty how she blasteth;
Tell favour how it falters:
And as they shall reply,
Give every one the lie.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In tickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
Herself in overwiseness:
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

Tell physic of her boldness;
Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention:
And as they do reply,
So give them still the lie.

Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay:
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming:
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

Tell faith it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell manhood shakes off pity
And virtue least preferreth:
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing--
Although to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing--
Stab at thee he that will,
No stab the soul can kill.


The poem is written in 13 stanzas in an ababcc rhyme scheme. Raleigh begins with an energetic determination to expose the truth, especially in the socially elite, although he knows his doing so will not be well received.

Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:

From there the poem moves quickly through a variety of scenes and situations of falsehood and corruption, all of which Raleigh condemns. The second and third stanzas declare accuse the court of being arrogant and yet wholly rotten, the church of being inactive and apathetic despite its teachings, and accusing those in government of favoritism and greed, respecting only those in large numbers.

History and authorship[edit]

Scholars are not certain that Raleigh is the true author of the poem--which was published after Raleigh's death--though he remains the most likely candidate. This is one of Raleigh's most anthologized poems. It talks about three groups of people: institutions, the nobility and the elements of love.{zeal, love lust}


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