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With its rich use of metaphor, this poem explores the many elements of the human experience by using the stage as a metaphor to build a vivid picture of life as a theatrical production.
About the poet
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 29 October 1618) was an English statesman, soldier, explorer, and poet during the Elizabethan era. His life was marked by a diverse range of activities, and he played a significant role in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
In addition to his accomplishments in politics, Raleigh was a prolific writer and poet. “What is our life? A Play of Passion” is one of his notable poems, reflecting his philosophical and introspective approach to life and death. Raleigh’s writings often explored themes of love, mortality, and the human condition.
This poem is written in a single paragraph. Each line is written in iambic pentameter, a metrical pattern commonly found in Shakespearean sonnets.
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.
The opening line of the poem asks, “What is our life?” in a meaningful way. This instantly establishes the framework for a philosophical investigation of the human condition. The metaphorical response is that life is a “play of passion.” This implies that the motivations, feelings, and wants that propel our behaviors and experiences are the fuel of our lives. The phrase “Our mirth the music of division” explains the concept in more detail. The emotion of mirth, which stands for happiness and laughing, is thought of as the background music for life’s play, in which happy moments are frequently mixed with unhappy and contentious ones.
“Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be” conjures up a powerful picture. The place where we start our life—the womb—is compared to the backstage area where performers get ready for their parts. This suggests that we are born with our inherent traits and potential and that our lives are somewhat predestined. The phrase “where we are dressed for this short comedy” deepens the metaphor. The “dressing” represents the formation of our personalities and identities as we get ready to take our place on the stage of life, while the “short comedy” alludes to the fleeting nature of our existence.
A divine element is introduced in the poetry. Heaven is portrayed in the verse “Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is, That sits and marks still who doth act amiss” as a vigilant watcher who judges what people do in the theatre of life. This highlights the concepts of divine judgment and moral responsibility. The line “Our graves that hide us from the searching sun” links death to the play’s conclusion. The grave is a metaphor for the last curtain, which closes on our life’s show and conceals us from view. The line “Are like drawn curtains when the play is done” highlights death’s role as the drama’s climax. The drawn curtains represent death’s finality and the conclusion of our earthly adventure.
The song “Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest” accepts that death is inevitable. Life may be fun, but in the end, we march in the direction of our ultimate resting place. “Only we die in earnest—that’s no joke” makes a striking message in its climax. Death is the one act that is true and permanent, even though life sometimes feels like a transient play. A melancholy reminder of our mortality closes the poem.
In “What is our life?” by Sir Walter Raleigh, the stage of human existence is transformed into a moving theatrical production. Life turns into a “play of passion,” propelled by our feelings and aspirations. The most touching part of this poem is the laughing and joy (“mirth”), a bittersweet moment that goes along with both victories and setbacks. Our voyage commences before the curtain call. The womb serves as the “tiring-house,” where our potential and personality are shaped.
Heaven, the “judicious sharp spectator,” watches over everything, painstakingly noting every move we make. The weight of this divine gaze reminds us that our actions have consequences and adds another level of moral obligation. We eventually arrive at the play’s last act, which is death, as it goes on. The “drawn curtains,” representing the end of the show and the fading of our earthly light, are our graves.
The poem ends with a sobering reminder that life is not a play: “Only we die in earnest – that’s no jest.” Death is the one performance that is definitive and irreversible, the one act that cannot be practiced. Raleigh challenges us to consider the fleeting nature of our time on stage and to value living truly, making an impression on the audience while the curtains are still open. The poem is essentially an appeal for purpose and self-awareness. It challenges us to take a critical look at our lives, appreciating the fleeting nature of life and the importance of the roles we decide to take on while the spotlight is shining.