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E211 Fall 2010 Students' Blog

Jillian Hastings on Sir Walter Ralegh's Poetry and Prose

Published by admin_main on Wed 29 Sep, 2010

Explain, with reference to a few of Ralegh's poems and prose selections that deal with the subject of death ("The Author's Epitaph, Made by Himself" and selection from The History of the World—Conclusion: "On Death," "What is our life?") what his attitude towards it seems to be.

Sir Walter Ralegh meditated on death frequently in his writings. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for 15 years, and undoubtedly much of this meditation occurred while he was there. In "What is our life," (page 918) Ralegh uses the typical metaphor of life as a play in which we must act. He calls it a comedy, and takes the metaphor very far. He says that Heaven is the spectator, or audience, and we are constantly being judged for our actions. The last line of this poem is very powerful, where he contrasts the farce that is our life with the reality of death, saying, "Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest, / Only we die in earnest—that's no jest." While the poem may sound very bleak, he does concede that Heaven is there, which should give some optimistic hope for an afterlife. This poem is not completely hopeless.

He does something similar in his poem "The Lie" page 919. He basically denounces everything, art, philosophy, law, church, government, love, time, flesh, age, honor, beauty, and asserts that all these concepts lie about what they truly are. They seem to be good, but they are all lying. Worth pointing out in this poem is his view on church. He says, "Say to the church it shows / What's good, but doth no good. If church and court reply, / Then give them both the lie." (Tell them they are lying. He concedes that the church shows good, but it doesn't actually DO good. He touches on death with lines like, "Tell flesh it is but dust," and "Tell age it daily wasteth," and "Tell nature of decay." Like the previous poem, "What is our life" this poem draws a picture of a bleak, cynical view of life, with only a tiny nod to an afterlife or higher power. At the end of this poem he admits that the soul is eternal, saying, "Stab at thee he that will, / No stab thy soul can kill." Again, this poem isn't a happy one, it gives only a small nod to the Divine or anything beyond this sad existence.

It makes me wonder how very faithful he was, when in all of his poems he paints a sad, grim picture of life on this earth, and gives only a tiny reference to any sort of higher being. In his epitaph, his remark about God sounds almost sarcastic. He goes on about the gloom of life and death, and just barely ascknowledges God in the last line.

Even such is time, which in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.

I can't really say if he was being sarcastic or not, but the dull, matter of fact way he talks about the Rapture seems like his faith is being tested, which would be understandable, the night before his execution.

In the conclusion to his History of the World, Ralegh once more meditates on death. Here he speaks of death with awe and reverence, acknowledging the power that death has to make people repent, and make them regret the things that made them happy in the past. Here he gives no concession to God or an afterlife, he is simply in awe of death's power. It is an intense soliloquy, ending with the powerful words, "…thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered all over with these two narrow words: Hic jacet." Meaning "here lies."

From all these selections, I can only assume that Ralegh has a far more reverential and deferential attitude toward death than toward God. It seems like his views of God and heaven have been pounded into him throughout his life, but hold much less intrigue and interest than death. Being imprisoned in the Tower of London for 15 years, I think he appreciated that the same people who have kept him locked up would be no better than him when they are both in the ground. It is a morbid thought, but one that possibly brought him comfort in those times he was confined. While he may have had uncertainties about God and the afterlife, he seems certain about his views on death.

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