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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Soul’s Errand by Sir Walter Raleigh

Literary Analysis (Summary)
Written by Sir Walter Raleigh, an English poet and explorer, The Soul’s Errand also known as “The Lie” in some editions is a satirical poem of a dying man’s instruction to his soul to expose the lies and imperfections of his time. The poem was written about 1592 on the eve of the poet’s execution by James 1, whom he fell out of favour with, although he had enjoyed Queen Elizabeth’s patronage earlier.

Still, the poem emerged from England during the Elizabethan period when social institutions and classes were well established. It was a time when moral virtues and chivalry were held in high esteem.

On the eve of his execution, Sir Walter in his solitude comes to realize that his society is made up of falsehood and superficial beliefs. He longs to relay this to the world, knowing he would be hanged the following day. But Walter has no opportunity again to tell the world about his new convictions. His flesh or physical body cannot carry out the risky assignment since it will soon be cut off from the earth, buried in the soil and eaten up by worms. Consequently, he finds himself in a situation where he has no option than to send his soul and he strongly believes that it is only the soul, the immortal, indestructible and abstract part of human that can tell the whole truth and liberate humanity from deception.

Throughout the poem, the poet-speaker expresses his frustration with life and how insignificant the human values we venerate. He realizes the oddness, hypocrisy and falsity of humanity, its institutions, concepts and social classes. He talks about the shallow way of life we make for ourselves. After all, he has suddenly realized that life is full of vanity and nothingness. As a result, the poet embarks on the principle of negation.

However, the poet directs his message to three groups of audience: social institutions, the nobility and leaders and refined human values (love, zeal, virtue, faith, justice, beauty etc.). So, the poem is a political and social criticism that dwells on the moral negligence of humans and the dire need to revive the consciousness of the soul as the herald of truth.

From stanza one, the poet commands his soul on errands, to go “upon a thankless arrant”. On this rigorous mission, the poet appoints his soul on a herculean assignment to expose the social institutions (like the royalty, schools and the church), the political leaders (potentates), men of high caliber, the ordinary pretentious people in the society and ideals. And if they object, the soul should publicly accuse them that they are lying. In other words, if the soul is challenged while delivering his message, it should prove itself and voice the truth come what may and expose the lies.

In the last stanza, the poet tells the soul that it deserves to be stabbed for telling the truth and exposing the lies of the people it has been sent to. The truth is bitter and hard to admit. Thus, the recipient of such bitter truth will see the message as “blabbing”. And in most cases, some will attempt to suppress the truth, but in this case, the soul cannot be suppressed or stabbed because it is immortal. “Stab at thee he that will/ no stab the soul can kill.”

The futility of life
The soul is the herald of truth
The immortality of the soul
The truth must prevail
Hypocrisy is undesirable
Corruption in high places
Moral decadence in the society

The poem is written in thirteen (13) stanzas of 78 lines with ababcc rhyme scheme.

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  1. I'm currently writing curriculum for 8th grade reading and writing at a charter school in NYC, and I've been scouring the internet and books for analyses on different poems in a Renaissance poetry unit, and "The Lie" happens to be one of them. I appreciate your analysis, especially as it mentions the satirical nature of the poem (which many other analyses are missing). The one thing I might add that I've learned in my search is that the poem actually was published in the 1590s, almost twenty years before he was executed, BUT was most likely written in 1592 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London by Queen Elizabeth (which would explain the bitter subtext). From what I've read, while he was in the Tower the first time, the threat of execution was still held over his head (pun intended), which means the sentiment is still the same. It also explains why it took so long for critics to ascribe it to him, as he would have not wanted to put his name to it while he was still in bad graces with the Queen.

  2. I just re-read the first portion of your post and realized you'd the date of publication right, but Raleigh wasn't executed until 1618. Queen Elizabeth died and was succeeded by James I in 1603!