What is Our Life?

What Is Our Life
 Overview

I really like this one.

Again (as with Spenser’s Sonnet 54) we see the theatre being used as a comparative; however, here it is not just a relationship, but our entire lives. He positions life as being dedicated to passion (love and romance) with joyful moments and judgement from above, drawing similarities between these elements of life and drama, musical interludes and the demanding spectators.

This comparison allows him to trivialise the importance of life as a play is short and ultimately unimportant.

What is our life? A play of passion;
Our mirth the music of division;
Our mothers’ 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 searching 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)

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


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Raleigh (1552-1618) strikes me as someone who really doesn’t appreciate what he’s got. An explorer and adventurer, chasing the gold of El-Dorado; a soldier, trying to quell the Irish; a poet, causing students 400 years in the future to scratch their heads.

In The Author’s Epitaph he comes across as pretty miserable about the whole concept of mortality and feels like he’s not really achieved everything he wants to achieve. I find this odd considering his life is so action packed and interesting.

This poem was written as he was imprisoned on charges of treason and on the road to execution. He’s pondering about life, but also about death. I think in one way he is quite upbeat about life and his experiences, but ends with a solemnity associated with his mortality.

 

Themes

It’s a contemplation of life and mortality, examined through the analogy of the stage. We listen to the joyous, but relatively insignificant comparisons between our earthly life and the stage; however, we are finally confronted with the solemn issue of death.

Content

The poem opens with a rhetorical question that Raleigh then goes onto explore – similarly in structure, if not theme, to What Thing is Love?

If life is a ‘play of passion’ then he suggest that love may be the central focus of our lives. We are prepared for the stage in  our ‘mother’s womb’, which perhaps suggest the inevitability of fate as it’s not really possible to consciously prepare as a tiny foetus. The comparison of life to a ‘short comedy’ emphasises the fact that all things may not run smooth and it is all over quickly; in a way this demonstrates the insignificance of man’s life in contrast to the depth suggested in the opening line.

Lines 5 and 6 link earthly life with the possibility of heavenly salvation should we live in the right manner with the ‘judicious sharp spectator’, God, judging our every move. With judgement made, ‘drawn curtains’ are the mud covering our coffins as we lie in our graves.

Up to this stage his contemplation seems quite positive with whimsical comparisons and mentions of amusement, passion and virtue (God’s judgement); however, the last couplet is a complete change of tone and idea. ‘Thus we march’ towards our deaths suggests the inevitability of all our actions/acts leading to the end and the ‘short comedy’ mentioned before is now replaced with tragedy as death is ‘no jest’.

 

 Language and techniques

We’ve dealt with most of this already.

You need to discuss the different aspects of the analogy and how the stage conveys notions of the joy, passion and virtue with close analysis of ‘play of passion’, ‘short comedy’ and the ‘judicious sharp spectator’. In addition, make sure you explain how the final lines really alter our perception of life from one that seems joyous and light to one inevitably sombre.

I would also comment on the rhetorical nature of the opening that draws us into Raleigh’s thoughts and allows him to present the insignificance of life and the unavoidable ending. Initially he makes us think he is going to offer his understanding of what life is… well, he does, but it is not very satisfying. The meaning of life is you live and die.

If you’re confident you can talk about the alliteration used throughout (‘play of passion’, ‘mirth of music’, sharp spectator’, ‘searching sun’) and how it helps given the poem a musical effect mirroring the music of an interlude on the stage – Raleigh possibly sees himself as an interlude as he awaits his final act – execution!

 

Structure

What to say?

The major thing here is probably the rhyme scheme. You’ll notice that we have rhyming couplets that contribute to the poem sounding quite musical. I would argue that repeating this short and simple rhyme scheme reflects the shortness/insignificance of life and the monotony of existence: always leading to the same end.

The initial six lines are all punctuated so as to allow rest and reflection upon life – something I feel the poet is doing as he writes. Reflections implies some sort of fondness and therefore I think these pauses are Raleigh enjoying the memories of his life.

This changes when he broaches the subject of death as enjambment means we don’t linger on the thought of being buried. Then caesuras in the final two lines ensure we realise that the end scene is final and unavoidable.

 

Tone

I think I am on my own here, as I see it as being quite upbeat for the most part.

Raleigh had a life to be proud of and there is a suggestion of that in his reflective comparison in the opening six lines. However, I accept that at the end of the poem he is solemn and fears death.

Most people seem to suggest that he is serious and bitter throughout and that he sees life as being insignificant as he approaches the end.

I just don’t see how this makes sense, but that’s the great thing about poetry – it means what it means to us as individuals.

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.

8 thoughts on “What is Our Life?”

    1. ‘A play of passion’ relates to the overall analogy of life being a production in a theatre. So ‘a play of passion’ means that it is something that we put our hearts and soul into it. Think about the different elements of your own life: things you get passionate about (lovers, politics, friends); then he proceeds to talk about how other areas of our life are linked to other theatrical elements.

      Good luck tomorrow!

      1. Could it possibly have something to do with the plays of passion (passion plays) that are a part of Lent celebrations?

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passion_Play

        That would highlight the pain/suffering, and it also adds to the way he talks about the different stages of life – there were several stages, all marked by pain and suffering, in Jesus’ walk through the Via Dolorosa.

      2. Hi Sarang,

        I’m not sure it has a link. What has made you think this? Have you found any clear suggestion that they are connected?

        I don’t really think we really have any emphasis on suffering in the poem, but I am happy to be disputed here.

        Cheers,

        Mr Sir

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