Even Such is Time by Sir Walter Raleigh
400 years ago this year poet, courtier, explorer, soldier and politician, Sir Walter Raleigh, was beheaded in Old Palace Yard, Westminster. He had been charged with treason against King James I. He asked to see the axe and remarked, “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases.” As was the custom of the day, his head was embalmed and presented to his wife, Bess. She had a bag made from red velvet and carried her husband’s head around with her until her death 29 years later. It was then reunited with the rest of his body in St Margaret’s Church, London.
It has been said that on the night before his execution Raleigh wrote this little poem. Some doubt has been cast on that story by scholars, and in my view it would take incredible mental control to sit and write poetry knowing your head would be chopped off next day, but Even Such is Time is a moving poem.
Even such is Time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.
The poem captures the tension between despair that life is about to end, and also hope that there will be an afterlife. Much of the poem seems bitter, and yet the last two lines bring a complete change of tone, with trust and faith introducing a more hopeful note. There is a quiet simplicity to this poem.
It was published in 1628. Here is a musical version of the poem:
I have always loved Raleigh’s poetry. You might like to read his The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage or his Farewell to the Court.
Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.
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