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The poems of Sir Walter Ralegh often deal with the issue of death and
mortality. In some cases he directly deals with the issue, and others he uses
vast metaphors in order to convey his message. For the most part, Ralegh takes
a very bleak position on the issues of death and aging, but in some cases he
takes a more optimistic view.
Ralegh is said to have been a man who was a
historian, soldier, courtier, philosopher, explorer, and of course a poet. The
fact that he spent the last years of his life in a prison and was then executed
for false charges of treason suggest that he knew the potential dangers of his
activities and made a conscious decision to live the way he did. It is clear
from his work that Ralegh did not know exactly what to think about the issue of
death, and that he spent a great deal of time thinking it over. The result of
this pressing question in Raleghs mind is a collection of poetry that covers
the subject from several different perspectives.
In Raleghs short poem On the life of Man, he (as the title suggest)
reflects on the meaning of human life. Ralegh makes the analogy of life being
like a production on a stage. He compares the time spent in a mothers womb
being like that of time spent in a dressing room where we prepare for what he
calls a comedy. He gives no suggestion of any set structure in the comedy, but
states quite clearly that heaven is watching and will be judging.
He goes on to
compare graves to drawn curtains. This is a very pervolant idea in American
society where there is a cliche of the term curtains for meaning the end or
death. This particular poem is not very optimistic simply because there is
nothing in it to suggest that life has any profound or special meaning which is
something that people want to believe. Ralegh concludes this poem with the
line: Only we die in earnest, thats no jest.
From this it can be assumed
that he thinks of his life a a comic time which should be enjoyed except for
the end which is not funny at all.
In Ralieghs poem The Lie, he also deals with the subject of
mortality. The first line of this poem is Go, soul, the bodys guest. It is
clear that he sees the soul as a separate being from ones physical body.
this scenario the body is simply the host of the soul, and it will leave upon
the expiration of life. In this poem Ralegh is sending his soul on a mission to
tell all of the people of the world that they are living a complete
contradiction. He lists all kinds of things that he claims are not what they
seem. There are lines like tell flesh it is but dust, and tell nature of
Basically he is commissioning his soul to go and tell the world what he
feels that it needs to hear, and the soul is the perfect messenger because it
can not be harmed. This is clearly his intent, and this is evident from the
last four lines of the poem which read:
Although to give the lie
deserves no less that stabbing-
Stab at thee he that will,
No stab the soul can kill.
This quote clearly shows the power and virtue of a soul. There are
contradictions in this poem.
On one hand it has a very bleak outlook on life,
and suggests that humans are inherently immoral, but at the same time it
touches on the sorrow and loss in the event of death. All the while the soul
which is now free and untouchable is sent to be the bearer of bad tidings. This
poem can be interpreted in more than one way, but there can be no doubt that
Ralegh believed that death meant the soul could move on to better things which
is not a pessimistic attitude.
In Raleghs poem Nature, That Washed Her Hands in Milk, he shows a
much more negative sentiment towards the life cycle.
He concludes this poem
with the lines:
Oh, cruel time! which takes 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.
In this passage he is condemning time for having no regard for man. He blames
its passage for the aging process. He suggest that it should give something in
return for what it takes.
He is overlooking the obvious which is the fact that
time is not cruel, but rather indifferent to life. It passes consistently and
disrespectfully with absolutely no regard to the human condition. He also
blames time for making people forget the lives we live which is some peoples
greatest fear. This passage offers little in the way of hope or comfort to
people, and seems to dote on the negative aspects of life.
In contrast to this poems negative nature, Raleghs poem The
Passionate Mans Pilgrimage. This entire 59 line poem is dedicated to the
of passage from life to death. In this poem Ralegh magically captures his idea
of the nature of heaven. His basic idea is similar to all of the glorious ideas
of what society pictures heaven to be.
His description includes fine cloths,
gold and diamonds in the streets, happiness with good friends, and an overall
feel of goodness and peace. After this extended description of heaven he
Seeing my flesh must die so soone,
And want a head to dine next noone,
Just as the stroke when my vaines start and spred
Set my soul on an everlasting head.
From this line it can be taken to mean that he feels that as long as he is
permitted to go to this place which he has described that he has absoultly no
problem with death what so ever. Since death is unavoidable, this is a fine
attitude to take about the subject.
He evidently has come to terms with his own
mortality, and is prepared to take the next step.
Raleghs poetry varies quite a bit when it comes to the subject of
mortality. Is some cases he shows spite and bitterness towards the ever
encroaching aspect of time. He seems to feel robbed and cheated by his rapidly
shortening amount of time in the world.
On the other hand, much of his work
takes a great deal of solace in the fact that the eternal soul moves on to a
better place upon the conclusion of life. Ralegh clearly did not feel that he
had all of the answers when it comes to the transition from life to death. It
was a subject that occupied a great deal of his poetry, and most likely his
thoughts. It is evident from his work that Ralegh was a man who believed that
there was something beyond death, and this is the idea he embraced and
glorified in his poems.