Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh's "The Lie"

by Zack_M_Davis 2 min read4th Jan 202019 comments

21


Followup to: Rationalist Poetry Fans, Unite!, Act of Charity

This is my favorite poem about revealing information about deception! It goes like this (sources: Wikipedia, Poetry Foundation, Bartleby)—

Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless arrant:
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 is 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 over-wiseness:
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;
Tell, 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 English is a bit dated; Walter Raleigh (probably) wrote it in 1592 (probably). "Give the lie" here is an expression meaning "accuse them of lying" (not "tell them this specific lie", as modern readers not familiar with the expression might interpret it).

The speaker is telling his soul to go to all of Society's respected institutions and reveal that the stories they tell about themselves are false: the court's shining standard of Justice is really about as shiny as a decaying stump; the chruch teaches what's good but doesn't do any good; kings think they're so powerful and mighty, but are really just the disposable figurehead of a coalition; &c. (I'm not totally sure exactly what all of the stanzas mean because of the dated language, but I feel OK about this.)

The speaker realizes this campaign is kind of suicidal ("Go, since I needs must die") and will probably result in getting stabbed. That's why he's telling his soul to do it, because—ha-ha!—immaterial souls can't be stabbed!

What about you, dear reader? Have you given any thought to revealing information about deception?!

21