Sir Walter Ralegh, "The Lie" and
"The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana" (c. 1592 and 159

Genre: verse satire and a strange combination of travel narrative and real estate promotion.

Form: thirteen stanzas of six trimeter lines each, rhyming ababcc; and prose ("The discovery...").

Characters:  "The Lie" imagines a courtier telling his servant (the soul, also the poem) to visit allegorical figures and actual members of court to tell them uncomfortable truths about themselves and, if they object "to give them the lie," or accuse them publicly of being untruthful.

Summary: "The Lie": The general tenor of the criticism mixes truths about mortality ("Tell age it daily wasteth") with satirical criticism of courtly abuses ("Tell potentates, they live / Acting by others' action; / Not loved unless they give, / Not strong but by a faction").  It may be following in the tradition of verse satires such as Wyatt's "Mine Own John Poins" and Thomas Skelton's "Why Come Ye Not to Court?," and ultimately reaching as far back as the Latin verse satires of Horace, Juvenal, and Persius.

"The discovery...":  This essay promotes the exploitation of the New World from several perspectives.  First, like many a traveler's narrative (see Utopia), it concentrates on the wonders and riches of the newly discovered lands.  Then, from the riches, it develops a rationale for exploitation of those lands which fits into England's current political struggle with the Spanish for hegemonic control over the Atlantic and Carribean region.  Finally, the riches of Guiana and England's imperial ambitions merge in Ralegh's vision to form an irresistable future empire or, if England should leave it to the Spanish king, England's doom.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. "The Lie" may not be Ralegh's poem at all.   Manuscript evidence is not conclusive and the poem was not published in his lifetime.
    • Why might this poem have been shy about acknowledging its author, whoever it was?
    • Why might it have circulated anonymously with considerable success, even if its author was unknown?
    • Finally, how might it have grown in circulation without the touch of its author's hand?
  2. "The Lie" moves rapidly among its topics, taking the reader from readily admissible satires on the human condition that expose follies we all share, to attacks on vices which afflict the court and courtiers.
    • How does that affect the reader's relationship to the satire?  That is, how does Ralegh manipulate us by offering us satire we will agree with (if we are courtiers) mixed with satire we may find offensive?
  3. "The discovery..." might almost be read as a parody of More's Utopia.  In place of a well-run, socially egalitarian, liberal and well-defended community where gold is used to shackle prisoners, Ralegh gives us a master-slave culture, defenseless against European military technology but (with those cannons) impregnable, where gold is the primary reason for occupation of the place.  As a poet, Ralegh also strangely parodies Sidney's dictum about the Nature giving us a "brazen world" of fact, whereas the poet gives us a "golden world" of new possibility.  Instead, his vision of Guiana transforms a new found world of potential strangeness into a familiar European phenomenon, a conquered state turned into a military fortress and pillaged for its gold.
    • What does "The discovery..." tell you about its author's psychology, and the psychologies he attributes to Elizabeth and her advisors?
    • How does it represent the kind of lands and peoples which became (by broad generalization) Maryland and the United States?
  4. Ralegh's instinct for self-promotion and image control marks him as a Modern man, one of Stephen Greenblatt's "Renaissance self-fashioners" who construct a myth of themselves through which they interact with the world.  If you read his poetry or prose while believing him transparently truthful, you will miss his subtle manipulations of his relationship with his audience.  For a brief description of his behavior at his execution on 29 October 1618, and the speech he gave before the executioner struck, see the "Early Stuart Libels" page introducing the poems which arose after his death, casting him as a Protestant patriot against the nefarious influence of Catholic Spain.  The twenty-five surviving manuscript poems, themselves, are accessible from the "Find in this Section" menu or by clicking the page-right button.  The speech, itself, a text of which is available in R. H. Bowers' "Raleigh's Last Speech: The 'Elms' Document" (Review of English Studies, II:7 [July 1951] 209-16,) available from JSTOR at

which is remarkable for the source manuscript's careful description of Ralegh's theatrical use of the execution platform as a stage and his self-conscious assembly of an audience of aristocrats and commoners about the platform's edges.

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