This whole poem is a conversation between a desperate lover and a stranger. The lover is desperate for word of his lover, which the stranger gives him, and then explains why she left him and together they philosophise about love.
There is a strong suggestion that she has used the word carelessly in the place of desire or lust, and that women does this all the time, and then true love is defined in relation to trust, stability and consistency.
‘As you came from the holy land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?’
‘How shall I know your true love,
That have met many one,
As I went to the holy land,
That have come, that have gone?’
‘She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair;
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or the air.’
‘Such a one did I meet, good sir,
Such an angelic face,
Who like a queen, like a nymph, did appear
By her gait, by her grace.’
‘She hath left me here alone,
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometimes did me lead with herself,
And men loved as her own.’
‘What’s the cause that she leaves you alone,
And a new way doth take,
That sometime did you love as her own,
And her joy did you make?’
‘I have lov’d her all my youth;
But now old, as you see,
Love likes not the falling fruit
From the withered tree.’
‘Know that love is a careless child,
And forgets a promise past;
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.’
‘His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy;
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.’
‘Of womenkind such indeed is the love,
(Or the word ‘love’ abus’d),
Under which many childish desires
And conceits are excused.’
‘But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never dead, never cold,
From itself never turning.’
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Raleigh (1552-1618) has three poems in Songs of Ourselves: Part 1 (The Author’s Epitaph and What is Our Life?). The other two have a much closer connection to his life, but this one seems to be fairly generic and something I couldn’t link to any aspect of his life.
The man was a bit of an Elizabethan legend; able to turn his hat to exploring, adventuring, chasing gold in El-Dorado, subduing the savage Irish and even a bit of poetry every now and again. He was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites and was seen as a romantic figure of a man. However, this ended up getting him in trouble when he seduced, fell in love with and married one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honour (privileged girls who served the Queen as a kind of societal finishing school for how to behave in polite/royal circles). He did this behind Elizabeth’s back and she was a bit miffed off and imprisoned them both… perhaps she was jealous?
Anyway, this poem is written in the form of a ballad and could reflect a lost love of his life, but may not. I think though it is a good indication of his views about love, as he risked all for his own marriage.
Pretty obviously we’ve got love again and this is a bit similar to What Thing is Love? in that it ponders the precise nature of the word. It addresses the ideas of lust and also everlasting love.
There is also a link to time or mortality, although only small, as it is seen as a reason for the girl leaving our lover.
Okay, so the first thing to understand is that this is a two way conversation. We’re never introduced to the speakers, but they seem to speak from the same perspective, so maybe just represent an internal monologue in Raleigh’s head. The stanzas move between the speakers.
To make this easy for you, I’m going to translate the meaning of each stanza into what a modern day equivalent conversation might sound like (apologies as I know I have tried and failed to write this in youthful terms and some of my translations are so old fashioned my grandparents wouldn’t even say them… should give you a good idea what’s going on though):
Stanza 1 – You’ve just come from Walsingham, right? Have you seen my girlfriend?
Stanza 2 – How would I know? What does she look like?
Stanza 3 – She’s not like other girls, she’s like an angel. There is no one fitter!
Stanza 4 – Oh yeah, I saw her. Fit as anything! Like an angel – everything about her so graceful and stylish.
Stanza 5 – She’s left me… sob sob… She made me think she loved me.
Stanza 6 – Why did she dump you, if she loved you?
Stanza 7 – I loved her when I was young, but now I’m getting on a bit and she doesn’t like old men.
Stanza 8 – Love is a b**ch like that. It’s like kids who doesn’t realise the stupid mistakes they make and forget what they’ve said they’ll do. It never makes sense how people act, it’s irrational and it never seems to last.
Stanza 9 – Yeah, love is short-lived happiness, you get consumed by jealousy and can’t trust each other, even when it goes well you really have to suffer for it and it ends for seemingly pointless or silly reasons.
Stanza 10 – Yeah, women misuse the word. They say they love you as an excuse when they want a good time and it acts as an excuse if someone was to question them acting in an unladylike manner.
Stanza 11 – You’re right. True love is supposed to keep you warm and make you feel comfortable. It’s not something that changes over time or dies out, but it last forever.
This one of the longest, if not the longest poem, in your selection, so don’t expect me to mention everything that could possibly be analysed.
Firstly you need to talk about the hyperbole that is used to promote the girl being discussed above us mere mortals. Although Walsingham is a place of pilgrimage, I’m not convinced there are many people who would call it a ‘holy land’, which people would usually reserve for the likes of Jerusalem, Mecca and the Vatican. However, it’s holy because his goddess has gone there.
Not convinced? He also refuses to describe her in conventional terms, instead insisting she is ‘as the heavens fair’, has ‘a form so divine’ and to be fair to the loved up guy the other chap confirms she is ‘angelic’. All these descriptions make this girl seem like a goddess and more significant or beautiful than any earthly creature. This is clearly a hyperbolic claim and one that we may associate with the early feelings of infatuation where the object of our affections suddenly becomes perfect in every way.
Next thing I would mention is the repetition of ‘alone, all alone’ in the fifth stanza. Prior to this it seems as if the guy is impatiently waiting for his love, but now we realise that he is desperate as he has lost his love. He claims she ‘me loved as her own’, so he thought their affections were mutual, but clearly she’s now moved on. The repetition emphasises his misery.
If you are linking this to mortality, then it would be crucial to talk about the seventh stanza. Here the lover confesses he is ‘old’ and ‘like a falling fruit’ or a ‘withered tree’. These comparisons with nature have a pretty clear surface meaning of aging, but could also be seen as sexual imagery. Falling fruit… drooping… ahem, I’m blushing… withered tree… wrinkled… ahem, sorry. Hopefully you can read around my embarrassment and recognise the potentially crude male genitalia equivalence of these phrases. Maybe he is not able to give her joy any more, or simply looking a bit grey and haggard. You decide.
The most wonderful part of the poem is the two different descriptions of ‘love’. At first personification is used to explore the emotion and it should be fairly familiar as Cupid: ‘a careless child’, ‘blind’. This suggests love can hurt people and makes mistakes or seems irrational. Possibly the cruellest point is that it ‘forgets promise past’ so seems to be transient or ever changing… this seems to be the case for our lover. This doesn’t sound like what we’d call true love, but more infatuation or lust.
This is excused though, by the stranger, who is pretty misogynistic. He claims that amongst women the word ‘love [is] abused’ and only used as a cover for their ‘childish desires’, meaning lust. It is interesting that women are cast as the villains here as in today’s society I’m pretty sure men are more typically cast as the fickle partners who use love to convince their partners to settle their desires. Quite the contrast with Sigh No More, Ladies, but I suppose similar to Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? and They Flee From Me, That Sometime Did Me Seek.
In the final stanza we get some lovely comparisons to demonstrate what the lover thinks true love should be. A ‘durable fire’ suggests a few things: warmth, comfort, long lasting; and I’d argue that is a fairly conventional view of love. ‘Ever burning’ means true love is something that is never extinguished and ‘never sick, never dead, never cold’ so unshakeable no matter what happens and ‘never turning’ or deviating to focus on another soul.
Poor chap, this is what he was after, but he has been used!
Typical ballad structure of quatrains telling a story. The rhyme scheme is also formulaic rather than concealing some great truth or purpose.
The thing I would discuss in analysis about the structure is the construct of the stranger. Although this at first seems like a story, once we probe a little deeper we can see that the two speakers have very similar ideas and philosophies and even the same opinions about this girl. I think it is more likely that the second speaker is a construct designed to explore Raleigh’s or the lover’s idea of love and how others abuse the concept.
Lamenting his sorry situation, but also reflective and instructive. I think we are meant to leave this poem feeling sorry for a man who is committed, but also to think about our own behaviour when dealing with matters of the heart.