The Author’s Epitaph

 Overview

What’s an epitaph? It’s that inscription on your gravestone and something that is supposed to either sum up your existence or act as your final message to the world. Always a good idea to write it yourself or you might get properly stitched up by your loved ones: ‘He died as he lived: alone and miserable’.

So what does Raleigh want as his final words? He wants to bitch and curse about time screwing us over and ultimately leading us to the darkness and silence of death. The idea of salvation in heaven is also present in his mind, but he doesn’t seem particularly confident that he will ascend.

Even such is 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,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Raleigh is one of those irritating people who seems to have had everything going for him in life and yet still finds time to complain that he’s been hard done by.

He was one of the Queen’s favourites and found himself enjoying fame as an explorer, adventurer, poet, soldier and a great romantic. Living into his sixties and experiencing as much as he did, you could argue that he should be grateful for all the multitude of experiences and privileges he enjoyed in his life.

However, you might forgive him when you understand that this was written as he awaited execution for plotting against Elizabeth I’s successor, James I. I suppose if you are awaiting certain death you are allowed to contemplate what comes next and possibly also to be a bit miserable about it. Remind me when I write my epitaph that I have to be upbeat about my impending death and destruction!

 Themes

Three main ones to think about: death/mortality, regret and religion/salvation.

The biggest one to deal with is death/mortality as the whole poem contemplates how short our lives seem and what happens next: nothing or heaven (all or nothing stakes!). This links to the idea of regret as he seems upset that the joys of his life cannot continue (he doesn’t feel he has done anything wrong, just wants more time and more joy).

The final themes is only directly touched upon in the final line where Raleigh talks about God raising him to heaven. Read it yourself, does Raleigh seem convinced this will happen? I don’t think so and I think the whole poem can retrospectively be seen as questioning Christian beliefs in the afterlife and not being overly optimistic.

Content

We open by pondering about humanity’s relationship with time. Raleigh describes how time enjoys our lives, ‘Our youth, our joys’ and then breaks our trust in it by bringing it all to an end with old age and desolation.

By line four time has condemned us to our graves and the reason we know Raleigh is bitter about this is his use of the adjectives ‘dark’ and ‘silent’. Death doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a negative, but the connotations of these words are loneliness, misery and the absence of joy – a complete contrast to how Raleigh paints life. This pessimistic view continues when Raleigh talks about death shutting us up.

The last two lines are my favourite. Firstly he sets us what physically happens to the body upon death: buried under the earth in a grave and gradually degrading to dust. This is what he knows happens and there is no hint of doubt; however, when he talks about potential salvation and ascension to heaven there is a huge element of doubt in the final hanging words ‘I trust’, which should be read as ‘I hope’ or ‘I’d love to think’. These are not the words of someone confident in their faith.

Language and techniques

It’s a short one, so I’ll take you through line by line as far as I can or think there is something significant there.

First of all we see that time is being personified as a person being lent all the joys and happiness of our youth. When the poem says ‘takes in trust’ this is like a promise time has made to us, but one that it has broken by paying us back only with ‘age and dust’ – this quotation is great as you can talk about connotations of age with frailty, incapacitation and brittleness that represent old age, while dust holds bleak association with our death: we become nothing, pointless and worthless. Nice!

I’ve already mentioned the connotations of a ‘dark and silent grave’ above, but let’s look at the fact that time ‘Shuts up the story of our days’. Raleigh is saying that time is not just ending our existence, but that it is wiping every trace of us away as our stories are no longer going to be told or shared as no one will remember or talk about our lives. He’s right as time moves on and fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers shrink into the mist of the past, but in terms of his own life, he’s not quite right as he’s still a popular figure for historians to study and write about. Nevertheless his point is clear.

If you want to sound really smart, you could link these words together and call them a semantic field of nothingness – ‘dust’, ‘dark’, ‘silent’.

For the last two lines the key thing to talk about is faith. One’s faith is meant to be just that, faith – belief without absolute proof. Raleigh’s certainty when dealing with what happens in the physical world is contrasted by the uncertainty communicated by ‘I trust’, which is almost an oxymoron as it suggests he doesn’t trust in the Christian afterlife. Also remember that the word ‘trust’ has already been used in the poem once, when referring to his relationship with time and that trust was broken suggesting he might expect the same from ‘The Lord’.

Structure

I think there is some really juicy stuff here, even though Raleigh’s poetry is often seen as very simplistic in its construction.

The first thing to notice is the full stops, or lack of them. The whole poem is one continuous idea or sentence. Why? Quite simply, it is mirroring life and when it finally stops… welll, there is no continuation as suggested by Raleigh’s lack of faith in the final line.

There is also a fair bit of enjambment. Look at lines 4 to 6, there isn’t a single pause. If we examine what is being said we can see it is a picture of what happens after life. We race through the ideas of silence, darkness and destruction of the story of life as if Raleigh doesn’t want to linger on these unpleasant possibilities. Contrast this with the caesuras that allow him to enjoy reflection on his youth and joy.

Another thing you could discuss to sound really clever would be the circular nature of the poem. Notice that the words ‘trust’ and ‘dust’ are repeated at the beginning and then at the end of the poem. These ideas could be repeated due to being stuck in his mind, as they would be if you were soon due to be executed.

However, I think the most important repetition here is of ‘trust’. When we are young we take it for granted, or trust, that we will never get old and never consider our own mortality, but when he is on the precipice of death he feels betrayed and can no longer believe implicitly in his continued existence and consciousness in an afterlife.

Tone

Initially this seems to be lamentation of the demise of his youth and his impending death; however, the second half of the poem seems more angry and defeatist considering the insignificance of the individual who fades to nothing and obscurity after their death.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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