What is our life?

WHAT is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother's wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that's no jest.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552(?)–1618)

All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts. A well known quote from his contemporary William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh explores the same idea about human mortality and transience, and the insignificance of worldly achievement. It was on October 29th 1618 that Sir Walter Raleigh was put to death by King James I. A rakish and shady character he left a legacy of great literature and this particular work was composed while he was confined to the Tower of London about five years before his execution and where he wrote his History of the World, for which he is best remembered.

He was a favorite of the court of Queen Elizabeth I and whether he placed his cloak in the mud for her or not, it seems fairly certain that his personal charm had much to do with their friendship. He spent much of his time in court with her and became a much disliked man because of the attention that he received. It was Raleigh who conceived and organized the colonizing expeditions to America that ended tragically with the “lost colony” expeditions on Roanoke Island, N.C. As an adventurer, admiral, historian and poet his greatest rival was the Earl of Essex an accomplished soldier and sonneteer and a threat to Raleigh's position at Court. To be sure I can't do adequate justice to his life but one thing of note about his works and one you may be acquainted with is Raleigh's famous reply to Christopher Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd, the best of many such responses is his The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd.

It is with unclouded irony that Sir Raleigh answers his question about life considering the adventurousness and sometimes absurd way he lived. After a brave, brutal and romantic life he met his death fourteen years after he was convicted for his part in the Cobham Treason against King James I; here he points out clearly and with exactness where the jest ends.


Blair, Bob:

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:

Raleigh, Sir Walter: Early Life:

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