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Poetic Criticism of the Old Social Order

The coming of social revolution is preceded by a cultural “re-birth”, which is a sign of a new order of things to come: new ways of knowledge, new literature, and new social relations.

The English revolution of XVII century was preceded by the English Renaissance, which was a movement from the end of XV century up to the beginning of XVII century. Its high time was the Elizabethan era, in the second half of XVI century. It included such figures as Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Thomas More, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and others.

If we’re to start with poetry, allow me to bring 2 examples of the English poetry of the period:

1) “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is” by Sir Edward Dyer (1543 - 1607), &

2) “The Lie” by Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618).

Sir Edward Dyer in his poem adopts a stoic attitude to the maladies of the society around him. He prefers to retire into his mind, and doesn’t want to be bothered with the cares of those who are hungry for power, meaning (in his time) the court of Elizabeth I.

Listen to the poem here.

My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such perfect joy therein I find
That it excels all other bliss
That world affords or grows by kind.
Though much I want which most men have,
Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
No force to win the victory,
No wily wit to salve a sore,
No shape to feed each gazing eye;
To none of these I yield as thrall.
For why my mind doth serve for all.

I see how plenty suffers oft,
How hasty climbers soon do fall;
I see that those that are aloft
Mishap doth threaten most of all;
They get with toil, they keep with fear.
Such cares my mind could never bear.

Content I live, this is my stay;
I seek no more than may suffice;
I press to bear no haughty sway;
Look what I lack my mind supplies;
Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
Content with that my mind doth bring.

Some have too much, yet still do crave;
I little have, and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have,
And I am rich with little store.
They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
They lack, I leave; they pine, I live.

I laugh not at another’s loss;
I grudge not at another’s gain;
No worldly waves my mind can toss;
My state at one doth still remain.
I fear no foe, nor fawning friend;
I loathe not life, nor dread my end.

Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
Their wisdom by their rage of will,
Their treasure is their only trust;
And cloaked craft their store of skill.
But all the pleasure that I find
Is to maintain a quiet mind.

My wealth is health and perfect ease;
My conscience clear my chief defense;
I neither seek by bribes to please,
Nor by deceit to breed offense.
Thus do I live, thus will I die.
Would all did so as well as I!

Sir Walter Raleigh lived in the later Elizabethan era. He doesn’t withdraw from the society, but was a multidimensional person: a soldier, a colonizer of the New World, a lover of ladies in the court of queen Elizabeth, and perhaps of the queen herself. He died in Tower on a scaffold in 1618. A nice short video presentation on his life can be seen here.

Sir Walter Raleigh in 1588

His poem "The Lie" is criticism of the old social relations. It is a voice of the truth, shining from behind the bars (Listen here)

Go, Soul, the body’s guest,

upon a thankless errand:

Fear not to touch the best;

The truth shall be thy warrant:

Go, since I needs must die,

And give the world the lie.


Say to the court, it glows

And shines like rotten wood;

Say to the church, it shows

What’s good, and doth no good:

If court and church reply,

Then give them both the lie.


Tell potentates, they live

Acting by others’ action;

Not loved unless they give,

Not strong but by a faction:

If potentates reply,

Give potentates the lie.


Tell men of high condition,

That manage the estate,

Their purpose is ambition,

Their practice only hate:

And if they once reply,

Then give them all the lie.


Tell them that brave it most,

They beg for more by spending,

Who, in their greatest cost,

Seek nothing but commending:

And if they make reply,

Then give them all the lie.


Tell zeal it wants devotion;

Tell love it is but lust;

Tell time it is but motion;

Tell flesh it is but dust:

And wish them not reply

For thou must give the lie.


Tell age it daily wasteth;

Tell honour how it alters;

Tell beauty how she blasteth;

Tell favour how it falters:

And as they shall reply,

Give every one the lie.


Tell wit how much it wrangles

In tickle points of niceness;

Tell wisdom she entangles

Herself in over-wiseness:

And when they do reply,

Straight give them both the lie.


Tell physic of her boldness;

Tell skill it is pretension;

Tell charity of coldness;

Tell law it is contention:

And as they do reply,

So give them still the lie.


Tell fortune of her blindness;

Tell nature of decay;

Tell friendship of unkindness;

Tell justice of delay:

And if they will reply,

Then give them all the lie.


Tell arts they have no soundness,

But vary by esteeming;

Tell school they want profoundness,

And stand too much on seeming;

If arts and schools reply,

Give arts and schools the lie.


Tell faith it’s fled the city;

Tell how the country erreth;

Tell manhood shakes off pity;

Tell virtue least preferreth:

And if they do reply,

Spare not to give the lie.


So when thou hast, as I

Commanded thee, done blabbing, -

Although to give the lie

Deserves no less than stabbing, -

Stab at thee he that will,

No stab the soul can kill.

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