Less Wrong Poetry Corner: Walter Raleigh’s “The Lie”

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?!