The Lie (poem)

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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 prevention;
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 accuse the court of being arrogant and yet wholly rotten, the church of being inactive and apathetic despite its teachings, and those in government of favoritism and greed, respecting only those in large numbers.

However this interpretation not the only one which is possible. And it does not seem necessary to equate the voice of the poem with the opinion of Sir Walter Raleigh, particularly with a work entitled "The Lie." Indeed, if the title were not enough, a saavy reader might reasonably wonder who is doing the speaking, if not the soul of the person addressed... this is a bizarre schism of self. Also the poem originally used the word "arrant" not errant and it not actually an interchangeable meaning, at all, even a little bit.

How one suppose a voice apart from one's own soul might dictate what a soul must do? What voice is that? Does this even work? How many selves does this speaker person suppose he has? What does the speaker mean by admitting that "to give the lie deserves no less than stabbing?" and what are we to make of the reasoning in the included criticisms?

Rotten wood does in fact glow. It is called foxfire (faux fire) has been known of since the time of Aristotle. Courts are made of wood. Indeed the court may glow like rotten wood, because that is what it is! The Church may also be seen to say what is good, and what does no good; to say what to do and what not to do... that is a legitimate aim as opposed to saying what is good, but not doing anything that's good. Nor would it be lost on Raleigh that the word word "faction" comes from a word which means "to do" in a criticism that potentiates themselves don't do anything.

One can go on in this manner. Is the problem with brave that they want nothing but renown? Is the problem with people who give everything that they have that they're actually beggars? Is Raleigh accusing these concepts of being flawed, or drawing attention to the definitions?

Zeal does, in fact, want devotion (they're different things and to be a zealot suggests a shortcoming of one's temper), and to say that "love is but lust" is not the same as saying "love is lust." Raleigh seems to be playing on double-use of the word "but" where the word "but" substitutes in some vernacular to mean the opposite of its practical (negative) meaning. Indeed the entire complaint may be supposed to be that of one of misprision, and one might venture to wonder if the advice "no stab the soul can kill" is not supposed to seem like terrible advice, coming as it does from a speaker who has just condemned not just the institutions of the Church and the Court, but also of charity and bravery itself.

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.


External links[edit]