Our life is full of questions

We’re working on a supplement to our recently posted video, a further exploration of the poem ‘What is our life?’ attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh – or Raleigh, Rawleigh, Rawlie, etc. – and set to music by Orlando Gibbons. We always like to dig into our texts, but doubly so when also creating a visual representation. As is usually the case with texts this old, words might have meant different things back then than they do now, and there might be references to concepts/beliefs/etc. that go over our heads. So we did a lot of reading to get as much of the cultural context of the poem as we reasonably could, as well as asked potentially knowledgeable people questions in email and in relevant Facebook groups.

We were pointed to an article by Michael Rudick (available for reading, to registered users) by both Google search and a number of commenters. He is mainly concerned with questions of authorship – he does conclude Ralegh is the most likely candidate, although with a twist; and textual criticism – examining the relationships among the 30 text variants (out of 40+). The poem was almost exclusively transmitted through manuscripts throughout the 17th century (with the exception of the version printed in the Gibbons book), which probably contributed to the versions being wildly divergent, with hardly any duplication across manuscripts. And the twist is that no existing variant can be considered an unaltered version of whatever Ralegh might have written. Although the Gibbons version is what (paraphrasing Rudick) became used in 20th century literary analysis as the definitive text, his reconstruction of the poem is about as different from it as it can get.

On the one hand, his questions, arguments, and insight into the different variants proved an excellent starting point for further research; on the other hand, this means our research was initially shaped by trying to interrogate his arguments (or understand them in the first place). This led to reading on a increasingly wide range of subjects: Ralegh’s life and works, philosophical and religious concepts as they might have been relevant at his time, how theatre worked at the time, old meanings of words, and so on. We’re still in the process of trying to integrate all of this well enough that we can write about it, and also growing out of constantly wanting to argue with Prof. Rudick.