We have little of Sir Walter Raleigh’s poetry. Like many persons of rank or quality in Elizabethan England, he disdained print, and preferred to circulate his work unsigned among friends or a small aristocratic coterie at court. As a result much of his literary output was surely lost, or else remained hidden in manuscripts, or poorly copied into private collections and miscellanies, or misattributed. Agnes Latham’s excellent edition of 1962 gathers only forty-one pieces that can be reliably assigned to Raleigh, or presumed to be his on firm stylistic grounds. Conjectural poems allow us to add another twelve.
Raleigh (1554-1618) lived the exact opposite of a quiet and sheltered life. He fought as a soldier in France and Ireland. He served in Parliament. He was the Governor of Jersey. He sponsored an ill-fated English colony in Virginia. He brought back treasure piratically seized from Spanish galleons. He raided the Spanish at Cadiz and in the Azores. In the 1590s, he wielded political power and great influence in Elizabeth’s court. He even made a quixotic freebooting expedition into Spanish Guiana, in the hope of gaining gold—a total disaster in which his own son was killed and his military advisor committed suicide. Not one to do anything by halves, be began work on a history of the world, and actually wrote the first volume. He impregnated one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting (Elizabeth Throckmorton), and married her secretly, without royal permission. This infuriated the Queen, who had the couple imprisoned. For other indiscretions he languished for years in the Tower of London, and was very nearly executed in 1603. He finally did lose his head in 1618, having run afoul of the Scottish King James, who never liked him.
Despite all this derring-do and high political gamesmanship, Raleigh’s life was marked more by failure than by solid achievement. Like a Roman candle, he tended to make a spectacular show, but always burned out quickly thereafter. For a man of such unbounded energy, poetry was simply one more way to feed his insatiable ambition for advancement, wealth, and honors in the England of the Virgin Queen. Poetry was an elegant accomplishment, much like an appropriate ruff or doublet for attendance at the court. But once again, Raleigh did something that was even more spectacularly daring than his political and military exploits: he tried to woo Queen Elizabeth herself in his poetry, with his suave manner, ready wit, and charm.
It’s certain that Raleigh had no intention of pursuing a physical relationship with the Tudor Queen, who was much older than himself. Such presumption would have been unthinkable at that time. But writing poetry to the Queen in a Petrarchan mode, and using the vocabulary and conceits of the Renaissance love-lyric or song, would have been no insult—as long as it was done carefully and respectfully, with a strong sense of the unbridgeable gulf between the poet and the lady being wooed. As with hundreds of Renaissance sonnets addressed to pseudonymous women who were distant and unattainable, such verse would have been understood as a form of homage and respect, not as a prelude to actual intimacy. Nevertheless, it took a certain brash self-assurance to write highly personal poems to a sitting monarch—especially one who had not the slightest compunction about sending offenders to the gallows or the headsman.
Raleigh knew more than just English and Italian poetry. His unfinished magnum opus, The Historie of the World, contains his poetic translation of passages from many Roman and Greek writers. Even though he took no degree during his time at Oxford, he was clearly fluent in the classics. Latham’s edition contains his English renderings from Vergil’s Aeneid, four different texts of Ovid, and from Catullus, Juvenal, Lucan, Cicero, Horace, Tibullus, Sedulius, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudian. From the Greeks, he rendered passages from Homer, Diogenes Laertius, Apollonius of Rhodes, Pausanias, Lycophron, Euripides, and Aeschylus. This is what it meant to be educated in Renaissance Europe. He was obviously better read than most Classics professors today. And Raleigh considered literature to be merely a pastime!
Let’s start with a Raleigh poem that is well known and frequently anthologized, and which alone would guarantee his reputation for wit, charm, and graceful composition. It’s from the Harley manuscript in the British Museum, and I shall quote only four stanzas:
Nature that washt her hands in milke
And had forgott to dry them,
Instead of earth tooke snow and silke
At Love’s request to trye them,
If she a mistresse could compose
To please Love’s fancy out of those.
Her eyes he would should be of light,
A Violett breath, and Lipps of Jelly,
Her haire not blacke, nor over bright,
And of the softest downe her Belly,
As for her inside hee’ld have it
Only of wantonnesse and witt.
But Time which nature doth despise,
And rudely gives her love the lye,
Makes hope a foole, and sorrow wise,
His hands doth neither wash, nor dry,
But being made of steele and rust,
Turnes snow, and silke, and milke to dust.
Oh cruell Time which takes in trust
Our youth, our Joyes, and all we have,
And payes us but with age and dust,
Who in the darke and silent grave
When we have wandred all our wayes
Shutts up the story of our dayes
This is a delightful little conceit of personified Nature and Love creating an exquisite mistress out of snow and silk, and Time’s ultimate triumph over that creation, and by extension over all we have and cherish. It predates and parallels sonnet 20 of Shakespeare, which also imagines a hypostasized Nature fashioning a perfect love object. Nowadays the pervasive stench of modernism makes it well-nigh impossible for a poet to use abstractions in such a free and easy manner. But it was not so in the Renaissance, where medieval traditions of allegory were still alive, and a strong neo-Platonism animated many thinkers.
One might dismiss the final quoted section of the poem as a standard lament over human mutability, but in the context of what we have of Raleigh’s work it turns out to be a hallmark of his most characteristic thought. Raleigh is delicate and technically perfect, but almost always sad. A sense of loss, failure, disappointment, missed opportunity, hopeless longing, and danger permeates his writing.
Another famous Raleigh poem that illustrates this vein of pessimism is the one written to his young son Walter. The boy had a penchant for rambunctious and wild behavior, and his father wrote the following sonnet to correct him:
Three thinges there bee that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they growe asunder farr,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another marr;
And they bee these: the wood, the weede, the wagg.
The wood is that, which makes the Gallow tree,
The weed is that, which stringes the Hangman’s bagg,
The wagg my pretty knave betokeneth thee.
Marke well deare boy whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hempe growes, the wagg is wilde,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rott,
It fretts the halter, and it choakes the childe.
Then bless thee, and beware, and lett us praye,
Wee part not with thee at this meeting day.
This is a letter-perfect exemplum of Renaissance wit in its best moralizing mode. The poem cannot work without the brilliant alliterative conceit of wood, weed, and wag: the wood is the gallows, the weed is the hempen rope, and the wag is an unfortunate young fool who has broken the law. When they come together, says Raleigh, they die. It’s a great little lesson to kick into your kid’s ass.
More of Raleigh’s somberness can be seen in his poem of farewell to false love, printed in a 1588 miscellany. Too many Elizabethan poets sang tedious and repetitive rhapsodies to the joys of love; Raleigh could no doubt do the same, but a more characteristic note is heard here:
Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enimie to rest:
An envious boye, from whome all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possest:
A way of error, a temple ful of treason,
In all effects, contrarie to reason.
A poysoned serpent covered all with flowers,
Mother of sighes, and murtherer of repose,
A sea of sorows from whence are drawen such showers,
As moysture lend to everie griefe that growes,
A schole of guile, a net of deepe deceit,
A guilded hooke, that holds a poysoned bayte.
A fortresse foyld, which reason did defend,
A Syren song, a feaver of the minde,
A maze wherein affection finds no ende,
A ranging cloude that runnes before the winde,
A substance like the shadow of the Sunne,
A goale of griefe for which the wisest runne.
These are the first three sections only, but the remainder of the poem continues the dazzling anaphora of complaint, with line after line of developed grammatical appositions to the main subject. Such extended anaphora is unheard of today among the witless buffoons who run poetry workshops—for them it is an artificial figure of speech, and therefore off-limits. In Raleigh’s day, you had no such restriction.
Another powerful poem based on a repetitive figure is Raleigh’s “The Lie,” probably written near the end of his life. Both manuscript and printed attestations exist, as it is an amazingly bitter and sarcastic piece clearly in Raleigh’s style, carefully crafted and savage in its cynicism. I cannot quote the poem in its entirety, but here are some of its stanzas:
Goe soule the bodies guest
Upon a thankless arrant,
Feare not to touch the best
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Goe since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.
Say to the Court it glowes,
And shines like rotten wood,
Say to the Church it showes
What’s good, and doth no good.
If Church and Court reply,
Then give them both the lie.
Tell men of high condition,
That mannage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice onely hate:
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.
Tell Physicke of her boldnes,
Tell skill it is prevention:
Tell charity of coldnes,
Tell law it is contention,
And as they doe reply
So give them still the lie.
Tell fortune of her blindnesse,
Tell nature of decay,
Tell friendship of unkindnesse,
Tell justice of delay.
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.
The phrase “to give the lie” is an Elizabethan idiom for our modern expression “to accuse someone of lying.” The pounding repetition of this idiom at the closure of the hammer-and-anvil anaphora of each stanza (there are thirteen of them in the whole poem) is as punishing as the punches of a heavyweight fighter. I find it an amusing testimony to the forcefulness of Raleigh’s poem that a number of stupid poetasters attempted to counter the piece by writing pious or outraged “answers” to it, some of them personally insulting to Raleigh. It goes to show that effective and shit-kicking poetry has always been mortally offensive to a certain class of Pollyanna-ish wimps.
The most pessimistic poem of Raleigh is “On the Life of Man,” widely collected in manuscript commonplace books of the time. Its brevity and simplicity are probably the reasons why it was so popular. In the first two lines, passion and division are trisyllabic in pronunciation:
What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombs the tyring houses be,
Where we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spectator is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that’s no Jest.
The word tyring in line three means “attiring” or “dressing,” and is used in reference to an actor’s dressing room. The basic metaphor here is that our mothers’ wombs are the places where we are garbed and sent forth onto the stage of the world.
We need to have a sample of one of Raleigh’s poems to the Queen, just to see how his literary skill could put together a quintessential praise-for-a-lady poem, while at the same time maintaining the deferential and subordinate position of a subject before his monarch. And he manages to do both, but also suffusing his poem with the wistful sadness and sense of failure that are the characteristics we expect in him. The poem is in tetrameter/trimeter severed couplets with double rhyme, a version of what were called “fourteeners” back then. I quote the entire poem:
Wrong not, deare Empresse of my Heart,
The Meritt of true Passion,
With thinking that Hee feels no Smart,
That sues for no Compassion:
Since, if my Plaints serve not to prove
The Conquest of your Beauty,
It comes not from Defect of Love,
But from Excesse of duety.
For knowing that I sue to serve
A Saint of such Perfection,
As all desire, but not deserve,
A place in her Affection:
I rather chuse to want Reliefe
Than venture the Revealing;
When Glory recommends the Griefe,
Despaire distrusts the Healing.
Thus those desires that aime too high,
For any mortall Lover,
When reason cannot make them dye,
Discretion will them Cover.
Yet when discretion dothe bereave
The Plaints that they should utter,
Then your discretion may perceive,
That Silence is a Suitor.
Silence in Love bewraies more Woe,
Than Words, though ne’r so Witty,
A Beggar that is dumb, yee know,
Deserveth double Pitty.
Then misconceive not (dearest Heart)
My true, though secret Passion,
Hee smarteth most that hides his smart,
And sues for no Compassion.
No wonder the Queen delighted in him! Raleigh paid his respects to her feminine vanity, while devising the literary fiction that his failure to initiate a more aggressive wooing was simply due to his humility as a subject, and her overwhelming beauty and perfection. No mention is made of political obstacles, or Elizabeth’s public status as the Virgin Queen, or the significant difference in their ages. This was a guy who really knew how to sweet-talk a bird, as the Brits say.
Let’s end now with a truly beautiful Raleigh poem, in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets, addressed to “Serena,” an unknown lady. It is found in a manuscript preserved in the Folger Library:
Now Serena bee not coy;
Since wee freely may enjoy
Sweete imbraces: such delights,
As will shorten tedious nightes.
Thinke that beauty will not stay
With you allwaies; but away;
And that tyrannizing face
That now holdes such perfect grace,
Will both chaing’d and ruinèd bee;
So fraile is all thinges as wee see,
So subject unto conquering Time.
Then gather Flowers in their prime,
Let them not fall and perish so;
Nature her bountyes did bestow
On us that wee might use them: And
Tis coldnesse not to understand
What shee and Youth and Forme perswade
With Opportunety, that’s made
As wee could wish itt. Lett’s then meete
Often with amorous lippes, and greet
Each other till our wantonne Kissses
In number passe the days Ulisses
Consum’d in travaile, and the starrs
That looke upon our peacefull warrs
With envious lustere. If this store
Will not suffice, wee’le number o’re
The same againe, until wee finde
No number left to call to minde
And shew our plenty. They are poore
That can count all they have and more.
This lovely piece follows the same pattern as Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and like Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time,” it dwells on the same literary topos. In Raleigh’s case, the ending of his poem is a deliberate echoing of Catullus (carmina 5 and 7) in its call for countless kisses between himself and the beloved lady.
For reasons of space I have not included herein Raleigh’s most celebrated poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which he wrote as an answer to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” It is best to see the poems side by side, in the way that they have frequently appeared in collections ever since Elizabethan days. They are easily available on-line for anyone to examine, so I have omitted them from this essay. Suffice it to say that Raleigh’s poem takes the celebratory, bucolic enticements of Marlowe’s piece, and deflates them with the real-world perception of time, deceit, disappointment, and limitation. How typical of Raleigh’s entire outlook, with its naggingly persistent sense that nothing ever comes to its proper fruition and reward, and the world is a mere bundle of vanities.
From the little we have of him, we see only a few lineaments of Raleigh’s character. Energetic and ambitious he may have been, yet also brooding, querulous, and moody. He showed all the bravery of a seasoned soldier, but conjoined with a not infrequent misperception of what was practical or politic. He rose to a good height of power in the royal court, but easily fell prey to enemy machinations. And much of his poetry shows a strong undertow of overwhelming fatalism that shadowed him like an unshriven ghost—one that brought him to the headsman’s block at last. But despite all this, his poetry is as fresh and alive as it was in Elizabeth’s day, even though he himself did little to preserve it. Thank God we have what we have.