MANY years ago — now more than two hundred and fifty — some one in England wrote a short poem bearing the above emphatic title, which deservedly holds a place in the collections of old English poetry at the present day. It is a striking production, familiar, no doubt, to most lovers of ancient verse, and, although numbering only about a dozen stanzas, has outlasted many a ponderous folio.
I say, indefinitely enough, that this little poem was written by some one, and strange as it may appear, the name of that one is still in doubt. Its authorship was attributed, by Bishop Percy and others, to Sir Walter Raleigh, and sometimes with the fanciful addition, that he wrote it the night before his execution. The piece, however, was extant many years before the world was disgraced by that deed of wickedness.
After a while it began to be questioned whether the verses were really written by Sir Walter. Some oldpoetry mouser appears to have lighted on an ancient folio volume, the work of Joshua Sylvester, and found among its contents a poem called “ The Soul’s Errand,” which, it would seem, was thought to be the same that had been credited to Sir Walter Raleigh under the title of “ The Lie.”
Joshua Sylvester was in his day a writer of some note. Colley Cibber, in his “Lives of the Poets,” is quite lavish in his praise, and says his brethren in the sacred art called him the “Silvertongued.” The same phrase has been applied to others.
In his “ Specimens of Early English Poets,” Ellis “restores” the poem, with the title of “ The Soul’s Errand,” to Sylvester, as its “ancient proprietor, till a more authorized claimant shall be produced.”
Chambers, in his “ Cyclopædia of English Literature,” prints the poem, with the title of “ The Soul’s Errand,” and he also gives it to Sylvester, “ as the now generally received author of an impressive piece, long ascribed to Raleigh.”
Sir Egerton Brydges, in his “ Censura Literaria,” doubts Percy’s right to credit Sir Walter with the poem of “ The Lie,” of which he says there is a “parody” in the folio edition of Sylvester’s works, where it is entitled “ The Soul’s Errand.”
The veteran J. Payne Collier, the emendator of Shakespeare, has recently put forth a work, in four volumes, entitled A Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books in the English Language.” In this work he claims the authorship of “ The Lie,” “ otherwise called ' The Soul’s Errand,’” for Sir Walter Raleigh, and rests his authority on a manuscript copy “of the time,” headed, “Sir Walter Wrawly his Lye.” He quotes the poem at length, beginning,
All other copies that I have seen read, “ Go, soul,” which I think will be deemed the more fitting word.
Collier does not allude to Sylvester in connection with this poem, but introduces him in another article, and treats him somewhat cavalierly, as “a mere literary adventurer and translating drudge.” “When he died,” Collier says, “is not precisely known.’ He might have known, since there were records all round him to show that Sylvester died in Holland, in September, 1618. His great contemporary, Sir Walter Raleigh, was beheaded in October, one month after.
(By the way, Payne Collier holds out marvellously. Here is his new work, dated 1866, and I have near me his “ Poetical Decameron,” published in 1820, forty-six years ago.)
Ritson, a noted reaper in the “old fields,” supposes, that “ The Lie ” was written by Francis Davison ; and in Kerl’s “ Comprehensive Grammar,” among many poetical extracts, I find two stanzas of the poem quoted as written by Barnfield, — probably Richard. These two writers were of Raleigh’s time, but I think their claims may be readily dismissed. Supposing that “The Lie” was written by either Joshua Sylvester or Sir Walter Raleigh, I shall try to show that it was not written by Sylvester, and that he has wrongfully enjoyed the credit of its authorship.
Critics and collators have for years been doubting about the authorship of this little poem, written over two centuries and a half ago ; and, so far as I can ascertain, not one of them has ever discovered, what is the simple fact, that there were two poems instead of one, similar in scope and spirit, but still two poems, —-“ The Lie ” and “ The Soul’s Errand.”
I have said that Sir Egerton Brydges alludes to a “parody” of “ The Lie,” in Sylvester’s volume, there called “ The Soul’s Errand.” In that volume I find what Sir Egerton calls a “parody.” It is, in reality, another poem, bearing the title of “ The Soul’s Errand,” consisting of twenty stanzas, all of four lines each, excepting the first stanza, which has six. “ The Lie ” consists of but thirteen stanzas, of six lines each, the fifth and sixth of which may be termed the refrain or burden of the piece. I annex copies of the two poems ; Sir Walter’s (so called) is taken from Percy’s “ Reliques,” and Sylvester’s is copied from his own folio.
On comparing the two pieces, it will be seen that they begin alike, and go on nearly alike for a few stanzas, when they diverge, and are then entirely different from each other to the end, I do not find that this difference has ever been pointed out, and am therefore left to suppose that it never was discovered. At this late day conjectures are not worth much, but It would appear that, the opening stanzas of the two poems being similar, their identity was at some time carelessly taken for granted by some collector, who read only the initial stanzas. and thus ignorantly deprived Sir Walter of “ The Lie,” and gave it to Sylvester, with the title of “ The Soul’s Errand.”
This, however, is certain: “ The Soul’s Errand,” so called, of thirteen stanzas, given to us by Ellis and by Chambers as Sylvester’s, is not the poem that Sylvester wrote under that title, and we have his own authority for saying so. His poem of twenty stanzas, bearing that title, does not appear to have ever been reprinted, and it is believed cannot now be found anywhere out of his own book. Ellis, it is plain, is not to be trusted. Professing to be exact, he refers for his authority to page 652 of Sylvester’s works, and then proceeds? to print a poem as his which is not there. Had he read the page he quotes so carefully, he would have seen that “The Lie” and “ The Soul’s Errand ” were two separate productions, alike only in the six stanzas taken from the former and included in the latter.
We learn that Sir Walter Raleigh’s poems were never all collected into a volume, and, further, we learn that “The Lie,” as a separate piece, was attributed to him at an early period. Payne Collier, as I have said, prints it as his, from a manuscript “of the time ” ; and in an elaborate article on Raleigh, in the North British Review, copied into Littell’s Living Age, of June 9, 1855, the able reviewer refers particularly to “ The Lie,” “saddest of poems,” as Sir Walter’s, and adds in a note that “ it is to be found in a manuscript of 1596.” This would make the piece two hundred and seventy years old. When and by whom it was first taken from Sir Walter and given to Sylvester, with the altered title, and why Sylvester incorporated into his poem of “ The Soul’s Errand ” six stanzas belonging to “ The Lie,” can now, of course, never be known.
I find that I have been indulging in quite a flow of words about a few old verses; but then they are verses, and such as one should not be robbed of. They have lived through centuries of time, and outlived generations of ambitious penmen, and the true name of the author ought to live with them. Long ago, when a school-boy, I used to read and repeat “The Lie,” and it was then the undoubted work of Sir Walter Raleigh. In after years, on looking into various volumes of old English poetry, I was told that “ The Lie ” was not “ The Lie,” and was not written by Sir Walter Raleigh ; that the true title of the piece was “ The Soul’s Errand,” and that the real author of it was a certain Joshua Sylvester. Unwilling to displace the brave knight from the niche he had graced so long. I hunted up Sylvester’s old folio, and the result of my search may be found in these imperfect remarks.
Frankly, I would fain believe that “ The Lie ” was written by Sir Walter. It is true I am not able to prove it, but I think I prove that it was not written by Sylvester. He wrote another poem, “The Soul’s Errand,” and he is welcome to it ; that is, he is welcome to fourteen of its twenty stanzas, — the other six do not belong to him. Give him also, painstaking man ! due laudation for his version of the “Divine Du Bartas,” of which formidable work anyone who has the courage to grapple with its six hundred and fifty-odd folio pages may know where to find a copy.
But Sir Walter Raleigh, — heroic Sir Walter, — he is before me bodily, running his fingers along the sharp edge of the fatal axe, and calmly laying his noble head on the block.
And his sword is rust ” ;
but I want to feel that he left behind him, as the offspring of his great brain, one of the most impressive poems of his time, — ay, and indeed of any time.