Reading and Content Analysis of Non-African Poetry-“The Soul’s Errand” by Walter Raleigh

Welcome to class! 

In today’s class, we will be talking about the soul’s errand by Walter Raleigh. Enjoy the class!

The Soul’s Errand” by Walter Raleigh |

Biological note on the poet

Sir, Walter Raleigh, an English navigator, was born in Hayes, Devonshire, England in 1552 and died in Westminster, England on October 29, 1618. He most likely attended the University of France in 1569 but left the same year to join a troop rose in aid of the French Huguenots. He was a determined foe to Roman Catholicism. On his return to England, he found that his half brother, Sir Humphrey Elbert, had just obtained a patent for establishing a plantation in America, and he entered into the scheme. He was later charged with a plot to place Lady Arabella Stuart on the throne, and was sentenced to be beheaded but was reprieved. He was an accomplished poet.

Analysis of the poem

The poem is all about the soul on a mission. The assignment from the creator of the soul is to go and tell the world that their actions do not represent the intention of the creator, as a result, they must change their ways of doing things. Their plans, machinations and conduct must tally with what God has in mind when the soul was first designed and infused into the human body and man thereafter became a living being.

In the Christian religion, particularly, the Catholic Church’s teaching (catechism), the main and central idea or reason why God created man is for man to know God, love him and worship him in this world, to live with him in the next world to come. Therefore to accomplish this aim, man must live following God’s standard to meet him face to face, after the earthly exile.

So in this poem, Sir Waiter Raleigh recaptures the mission of the soul and the various groups the message should go to. Note that to give the lie to something idiomatically means to show something is not true. The word ‘the lie’ almost appears in every stanza of the poem. The first stanza opens up with the command to the soul, thus:

Go, soul, the body’s guest,

Upon a thankless arrant

The mission is thankless because not everybody would appreciate the message of hope. It is a charge not to fear to ‘touch the best’. The ‘best’ the world can boast of still need the truth because it is only the truth that can set man free indeed, as the biblical Jesus would say. The soul should not drift, rather should be focused and wear ‘truth’ as a dress at all times. And because every soul that sin must die, therefore, he should give the world ‘the lie’ it should be able to tell the inhabitant of the earth that the way they do their things is not the true way.

The soul should also remember to ‘say to the court’, that it ‘glows’ and ‘shines like rotten wood’. The court and the church begin the very harbinger and custodian of truth and also being two institutes so vital in this process of purification, they should do right at all times. Unfortunately, these bodies are not helping matters according to the poet, because, they know what is good but fail to do the same.

The soul should also tell potentate (princesses) that ‘they live/acting by others’ action’; meaning that they sit in such a position as to take decisions affecting several people, so should not be biased or seen, favouring a ‘fraction’ of the populace. The soul should give the potentates the lie. The searchlight beams on estate managers that their interest is not on the welfare of their client but their own selfish gains. They are busy maximizing profit, while their subjects are dying. Well accordingly, they should be told eyeball-to-eyeball that they should turn a new leaf. The insatiable groups are the next who asked to be contented with what they have, instead of their usual spending and wasting.

The eighth stanza begs to tell ‘zeal’, ‘love’, ‘time’ and ‘flesh’ what they represent and lack in the material plane, that is, in the world. For instance, ‘love’ is abused to mean ‘lust’, ‘time’ is in motion and wait for no one, while ‘flesh’ is nothing but ‘dust’. ‘Age’ in stanza nine, has to do with the time which also signifies nothing, as it ‘wasteth’. On the other hand, ‘honour’ itself ‘alters’ while ‘beauty’ ‘blasteth’, ‘favour’ also ‘falters’, if these qualities which represent individual are to reply, then truth should be revealed to them.

Moreover, ‘wit’ should be told also that ‘it wrangles/in tickle points of ‘niceness’. For ‘wisdom’, her own palaver is that ‘she entangles/herself in over-wiseness’, and so should be told straight away that their conduct falls short of the minimum requirement. Therefore they should be advised appropriately. The poetic message of vanity upon vanity all is vanity, enters the ninth stanza with the poet proving the falsity and vanity inherent in the field of physics, arts, science and medicine by posturing science is king’s ‘boldness’ and sees the so-called expert knowledge (skill) as nothing but one full of ‘pretension’. In the same vein, some persons are supposed to show love to their follow human being but fail to do so, rather exhibit lukewarmness and coldness. For ‘law’ which ordinarily should be a vehicle for settlement of the dispute, it is now being used to fan the embers of contention. They should therefore declare their innocence.

For those who consider themselves as being fortunate, they should be told of how blind they are; after all, you cannot be taller than me and at the same time shorter than me. The temporariness of things on ‘nature’, just as unkindness is often exhibited by those in friendship, including delays occasioned by those dispensing justice, are all pointer to the fact that the world is full of thorns and therefore no person should cling to it as representing permanence.

In the eleventh stanza, the poet shows the folly found in the discipline of ‘arts’ and the hollowness of schools set-up. And the 12th stanza has it that people ‘preferreth’ vices to virtues and even ‘faith’ have ‘fled the city’. The assignment of the blabber is not a simple one as exemplified by the enabling statement thus:

Stab at thee he that will

No stab the soul can kill

In summary, one big lesson to learn from the whole poetic piece is that the world and everything in it is nothing but vanity.


  1. Give a detailed content analysis of the poem, ‘The Soul’s Errand’.
  2. Using the poem, ‘The Soul’s Errand’, discuss the statement ‘vanity upon vanity is vanity’.


  1. The message of hope.
  2. A word of advice for the soul bearer.

Poetic devices

  1. Diction: the language is a bit philosophical and therefore, an average reader would still need a guide to understand the words in the various contexts. The following words ‘arrant’ (a word used to emphasize how bad something is ), warrant, ( an acceptable reason for doing something), ‘potentates’ ( a prince or rule who has a lot of power), ‘give them all the lie’ ( to show that something is not true), ‘entangles’ (got caught or twisted),  ‘wrangles’ ( an argument that is complicated and continues for a period of time) etc. should be read between the lines.
  2. Tone/mood: the poem carries a tone of criticism and blasting tone, while it captures a mood of hope and preparation.
  3. Rhyme: the poem is rhythmical, having been arranged in alternative rhymes, with each stanza ending with the phrase ‘give them the lie’. The poem is one form of music expressed in poetic form. Even the assonances and consonances are musical in themselves (e.g.) in ‘go, soul, the body’s …’ (‘o’ assonates), ‘…good, and doth no good’ (‘o’ assonates), ‘in tickle point of niceness’ (‘i’ assonates).
  4. Euphemism: the following expression sound euphemistic in the poem (e.g. ‘… Give them both the lie’ and ‘the truth shall be thy warrant’ and also, ‘tell wisdom she entangles’). In all these examples, a serious issue is presented in a mild form, and therefore makes the serious assignment of the soul look or sound unserious.
  5. Irony: life is one big durable asset. It alters and falters at a point. It is therefore ironic that ‘Age’ ‘wasteth’, ‘favour’ ‘falters’ and ‘wisdom’ ‘entangles’.
General evaluation
  1. Discuss the major theme of the poem, ‘The Soul’s Errand’.
  2. Discuss the diction of the poem.

Weekend assignment

Provide the right answers for each of these questions.

  1. The epilogue in a play refers to the _____________
  2. A short story of everyday life used to teach a moral by comparison is called a__________
  3. The character that create humour in a play is ______________
  4. The literary term that describe the year of a novel is written is______________
  5. FIFA’s visit is geared towards “packaging Nigeria overseas for international acceptance”. The above quotation contain a figure of speech known as _______________


  1. Explain any five literary devices used in the poem, ‘The Soul’s Errand’.
  2. What is the dominant mood of ‘The Soul’s Errand’ and how is mood conveyed?

Reading assignment

  1. Exam Reflection Vol. IV, Literature- in-English by Sunday Olateju Faniyi, pgs31-42.
  2. The Mastery of Literature by Chinweikpe Iwuchukwu Esq, pgs 90-97.
  3. Essential Literature-in-English for SSS by Ibitola A. O., pgs 175-180.


In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Textual Analysis of African Prose – The Blinkards by Kobina Sekyi. We hope you enjoyed the class.

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