WHAT IS OUR LIFE?
~ by Sir Walter Raleigh
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.
This piece strikes me as a universal epitaph, one for all our lives.
Raleigh’s “play of passion” alludes, I think, to the Passion Play of medieval times, the earliest and longest-lived genre of theater in Christian Europe, centered around the life and death of Christ, and performed in the church as an illustration of the liturgy.
“Music of division” refers to diverting entre-acte music that punctuates a drama and keeps up the spirits of the audience. “Tiring house” is the dressing room (where the players are attired.) Heaven is an exacting critic.
See also William Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy, in As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, spoken by Melancholy Jacques, for a rather different extended figure on our life as a series of scenes on a stage.