1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Raleigh

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:145-53.



The verses attributed to this illustrious man are few, and the authenticity of some of them is doubtful. No one, however, who has studied his career, or read his History of the World, can deny him the title of a great poet.

We cannot be expected, in a work of the present kind, to enlarge on a career so well known as that of Sir Walter Raleigh. He was born in 1552, at Hayes Farm, in Devonshire, and descended from an old family there. He went early to Oxford, but finding its pursuits too tame for his active and enterprising spirit, he left it, and became a soldier at seventeen. For six years he fought on the Protestant side in France, besides serving a campaign in the Netherlands. In 1579, he went a voyage, which proved disastrous, to Newfoundland, in company with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. There can be no doubt that this early apprenticeship to war and navigation was of material service to the future explorer and historian. In 1580, he fought in Ireland the Earl of Desmond, who had raised a rebellion there, and on one occasion is said to have defended a ford of Shannon against a whole band of wild Irish rebels, till the stream ran purple with their blood and his own. With the Lord-Deputy, Lord Grey de Wilton, he got into a dispute, and to settle it came over to England. Here high favour awaited him. His handsome appearance, his graceful address, his ready wit and chivalric courtesy, dashed with a fine poetic enthusiasm, (see them admirably pictured in Kenilworth,) combined to exalt him in the estimation of Queen Elizabeth. On one occasion he flung his rich plush cloak over a miry part of the way, that she might pass on unsoiled. By this delicate piece of enacted flattery he "spoiled a cloak and made a fortune." The Queen sent him, along with some other courtiers, to attend the Duke of Anjou, who had in vain solicited her hand, back to the Netherlands. In 1584, he fitted two ships, and sent them out for the discovery and settlement of those parts of North America not already appropriated by Christian states, and the next year there followed a fleet of seven ships under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, Raleigh's kinsman. The attempt to colonise America at that time failed, but two important things were transplanted through means of the expedition from Virginia to Britain, namely, tobacco and the potato, — the former of which has ever since been offered up in smoky sacrifice to Raleigh's memory throughout the whole world, and the latter of which has become the most valuable of all our vegetable esculents. Raleigh first planted the potato in Ireland, a country of which it has long been the principal food. A ludicrous story is told about this. It is said that he had invited a number of his neighbours to an entertainment, in which the new root was to form a prominent part, but when the feast began Raleigh found, to his horror, that the servants had boiled the plums, a most unsavoury mess, and immediately, we suppose, "tabulae solvuntur risu." In 1584 the Queen had knighted him, and shortly after she granted him certain lucrative monopolies and an estate in Ireland, in addition to one he had possessed for some years. In 1588, he was of material service as one of Her Majesty's Council of War, formed to resist the Spanish Armada, and as on of the volunteers who joined the English fleet with ships of their own. Next year he accompanied a number of his countrymen in an expedition, which had it in view to restore Don Antonio to the throne of Portugal, of which the Spaniards had deprived him. On has return he lost caste considerably, both with the Queen and country, by taking bribes, and otherwise abusing the influence he had acquired at Court. Yet, about this time, his active mind was projecting what he called an Office of Address, — a plan for facilitating the designs of literary and scientific men, promoting intercourse between them, gaining, in short, all those objects which are now secured by our literary associations and philosophical societies. Raleigh was eminently a man before his age, but, alas! his age was too far behind him.

While visiting Ireland, after his expedition to Portugal, he contracted an intimacy with Spenser. (See our Life of Spenser, vol. ii.) In 1592, he commanded a large naval expedition, destined to attack Panama and intercept the Spanish Plate-fleet, but was recalled by the Queen, not, however, till he had seized on an important prize, and, in common parlance, had "feathered his nest." On his return he excited Her Majesty's wrath, by an intrigue with Elizabeth Throgmorton, one of the maids of honour, and, although Raleigh afterwards married her, the Queen imprisoned both the offending parties for some months in the Tower. Spenser is believed to allude to this in the 4th Book of his great poem. (See vol. iii. of our edition, p. 88.) Even after he was released from the Tower, Raleigh had to leave the Court in disgrace; instead, however, of wasting time in vain regrets, he undertook, at his own expense, an expedition against Guiana, where he captured the city of San Joseph, and which he occupied in the Queen's name. After his return he published an account of his expedition, more distinguished by glowing eloquence than by rigid regard to truth. In 1596, having in some measure regained the Queen's favour, he was appointed to a command in the expedition against Cadiz, under the Earl of Essex. In this, as well as in the expedition against the Spanish Plate-fleet the next year, he won laurels, but was unfortunate enough to excite the jealousy of his Commander-in-Chief. When the favourite got into trouble, Raleigh eagerly joined in the hunt, wrote a letter to Cecil urging him to the destruction of Essex, and witnessed his execution from a window in the Armoury. This is undoubtedly a deep blot on the escutcheon of our hero.

Cecil had been glad of Raleigh's aid in ruining Essex, but he bore him no good-will otherwise, and is said to have poisoned James, who now succeeded to the English throne, against him Assuredly the new King was no friend of Raleigh's. Stimulated by Cecil, after first depriving him of his office of Captain of the Guards, he brought him to trial for high treason. He was accused of conspiring to establish Popery, to dethrone the King and to put the crown on the head of Arabella Stewart. Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney-General, led the accusation, and disgraced himself by heaping on Raleigh's head every foul epithet, calling him "viper," "damnable atheist," "monster," "traitor," "spider of hell," &c., and by his violence, although to his own surprise, as he never expected to gain his cause in full he browbeat the jury to bring in a verdict of high treason.

Raleigh's defence was a masterpiece of temper, dignity strength of reasoning, and eloquence, and his enemies were ashamed of the decision to which they had driven the jury. He was therefore reprieved, and committed to the Tower, when his wife was allowed to bear him company, and where his youngest son was born. His estates were, in general, preserved to him, but Carr, the infamous minion of the King under some pretext of a flaw in the conveyance of it by Raleigh to his son, seized upon his manor of Sherborne. In the Tower he continued for twelve years. These years his industry and genius rendered the happiest probably of his life. Immured in the

towers of Julius, London's lasting shame,
By many a foul and midnight murder fed,

his winged soul soared away, like the dove of the Deluge, over the wild ocean of the past. The Tower confined his body, this great globe the world seemed too little for the sweep of his spirit. To fill up the vast void which along imprisonment created around him, and to show that his powers retained all their elasticity, he projected a work on the largest scale, and with noblest purpose — The History of the World. In this under taking he found literary men ready to lend him their aid. A hundred hands were generously stretched out to gather materials, and to bring them to the captive in the Tower. Cart-loads of books were sent. One Burrell, formerly his chaplain, assisted him in much of the critical and chronological drudgery.

Rugged Ben Jonson sent in a piece of rugged writing on the Punic War, which Raleigh polished and set as a carved stone in his magnificent temple. Some have, on this account, sought to detract from the merit of the author. As if ever an architect could rear a building without hodmen! But in Raleigh's case the hodmen were Titans. "The best wits in England assisted him in his undertaking;" and what a compliment was this to the strength and stature of the master-builder!

This great work was never finished. The part completed comprehended only the period from the Creation to the Downfall of the Macedonian Empire — one hundred and seventy years before Christ. He tarries too long amidst the misty and mythical ages which precede the dawn of history; his speculations on the site of the original Paradise, on the Flood, &c., are more ingenious than instructive; but his descriptions of the Greek battles — his account of the rise of Rome — the extensive erudition on all subjects displayed in the book — the many acute, profound, and eloquently-expressed observations which are sprinkled throughout — and the style, massive, dignified, rich, and less involved in structure than that of almost any of his contemporaries — shall always rank it amongst the great literary treasures of the language. It was published in 1614. Besides it, Raleigh was the author of various works, all full of sagacious thought and brilliant imagery, such as The Advice to a Son on the Choice of a Wife, The Sceptic, Maxims of State, &c.

At last he was released by the advance of a large sum of money to Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, James's favourite; and, to retrieve his fortunes, projected another expedition to America. James granted him a patent, under the Great Seal, for making a settlement in Guiana, but ungenerously did not grant him a pardon for the sentence which had been passed on him for treason. He set sail, 1617, in a ship built by himself, called the Destiny, with eleven other vessels. Having reached the Orinoco, he despatched a portion of his forces to attack the new Spanish settlement of St. Thomas. This was captured, with the loss of Raleigh's eldest son. The expected plunder, however, proved of little value; and Sir Walter having in vain attempted to induce his captains to attack other settlements of the Spaniards, was compelled to return home — his golden dreams dissolved, and his prophetic soul forewarning him of the doom that awaited him on his native shores. In July 1618, he landed at Plymouth; "whence," says Howell, in his Familiar Leters, "he thought to make an escape, and some say he tampered with his body by physic to make him look sickly, that he might be the more pitied, and permitted to lie in his own house." James was at this time seeking the hand of the Infanta for his son Charles, and was naturally disposed to side with the Spanish cause. He was, besides, stirred up by the Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar, who sent to desire an audience with His Majesty, and said, that he had only one word to say to him. "The King wondered what could be delivered in one word, when upon, when he came before him, he said only, 'Pirates! pirates! pirates!' and so departed."

Raleigh consequently was arrested and sent back to his own lodgings in the Tower. He was not tried, as might have been expected, for the new offence of waging war against a power then at amity with England, but James, with consummate meanness and cruelty, determined to revive his former sentence. He was brought before the King's Bench, where his old enemy Sir Edward Coke, now sat as Chief Justice, and officially condemned him to death. His language, however, was consider ably modified to the prisoner. He said, "I know you have been valiant and wise, and I doubt not but you retain both the virtues, for now you shall have occasion to use them. Your faith hath heretofore been questioned, but I am resolved you are a good Christian; for your book, which is an admiral work, doth testify as much. I would give you counsel, but know you can apply unto yourself far better than I can give you. Yet will I (with the good neighbour in the Gospel, when finding one in the way wounded and distressed, poured oil in his wounds and refreshed him) give unto you the oil of comfort though, in respect that I am a minister of the law, mixed with vinegar." Such was Coke's comfort to the brave and gifted man who stood untrembling before his bar.

On the 26th of October 1618, the day after his condemnation, Raleigh was beheaded. He met his fate with dignity and composure. Having addressed the multitude in vindication of his conduct, he took up the axe, and said to the sheriff, "This is a sharp medicine, but a sound cure for all diseases." He told the executioner that he would give the signal by lifting up his hand, and "then," he said, "fear not, but strike home." He next laid himself down, but was asked by the executioner to alter the position of the head. "So the heart be right," he replied, it is no matter which way the head lies." The headsman became uncertain and tremulous when the signal was given, whereupon Raleigh exclaimed, "Why dost thou not strike? Strike, man!" and by two blows that gallant, witty, and richly-stored head was severed from the body. He was in his sixty-fifth year. He had the night before composed the following verse:

Even such is Time, that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander'd all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.

Thus perished Sir Walter Raleigh. There has been ever one opinion as to the breadth and brilliance of his genius. His powers were almost universal in their range. He commented on Scripture with the ingenuity of a Talmudist, and wrote love verses (see the lines in Campbell's Specimens, entitled Dulcina) with the animus and graceful levity of a Thomas Moore. He was deep at once in "all the learning of the Egyptians," and in that of the Greeks and Romans. In his large mind lay dreams of golden lands, which even Australia has not yet fully verified, alongside of maxims of the most practical wisdom. He was learned in all that had been; well-informed as to all that was; and speculative and hopeful as to all that might be and was yet to be. Disgust at the scholastic methods, blended with the adventurous character of his mind, and perhaps also with some looseness of moral principle, led him at one time to the brink of universal scepticism; but disappointment, sorrow, and the solitude of the Tower, made him a sadder and wiser man, and he returned to the verities of the Christian religion.

The stains on his character seem to have arisen chiefly from his position. He was, like some greater and some smaller men of eminence, undoubtedly, to a certain extent, a brilliant adventurer — a class to whom justice is seldom done, and against whom every calumny is believed. He was a "novus homo," in an age of more than common aristocratic pretence; sprung, indeed, from an ancient family, but possessing nothing himself, save his cloak, his sword, his tact, and his genius. We all know how, in later times, such spirits, kindred in many points to Raleigh, in some superior, and in others inferior — as Burke, Sheridan, and Canning — were used, less for their errors of temper or of life, than because they had gained immense influence, not by birth or favour, but by the force of extraordinary talent and no less remarkable address. Raleigh, however, was undoubtedly imprudent in a high degree. He had once or twice outraged common morality; his enemies were constantly accusing him of gasconading and of "pride." His success at first was too early and too easy, and hence a reverse might have been anticipated as certain and as remarkable as his rise had been. His fall ultimately is understood to have been precipitated by the base complicity of James with the Spaniards, who were informed by the King of Raleigh's motions in America, and prepared to counteract them, as well as by the loud-sounding invectives and legal lies of the unscrupulous instruments of his tyrannical power.

With all his faults and follies, (of "crimes," it has been justly said, Raleigh can hardly be accused,) he stood high in that crowd of giants who illustrated the reign of the Amazonian Queen. What an age it was! Bacon, with still brighter powers, and far darker and meaner faults than Raleigh, was sitting on the woolsack in body, while his spirit was presiding over the half-born philosophies of the future, and beholding the cold rod of induction blossom in an after-day into the Aaronic flowers and fruits of a magnificent science; Cecil was nodding out wisdom or transcendental craft in the Cabinet; Sir Philip Sidney was carrying the spirit of Arcadia into the field of battle; Spenser was dreaming his one beautiful lifelong Dream; and Shakspeare was holding up his calm mirror to the heart of man and the universe of nature; while, on the prow of the British vessel, carrying on those lofty spirits and enterprises, there appeared a daring mariner, the Poet and "Shepherd of the Ocean," with bright eye, sanguine countenance, step treading the deck like a throne, and look contemplating the sunset, as if it were the dawning, and the Evening, as if it were the Morning Star. It was the hopeful and the brilliant Raleigh, who, while he "opened up to Europe the New World, was the historian of the Old." Alas that this illustrious "Marinere" was doomed to a life so troubled and a death so dreadful, and that the glory of one of England's prodigies is for ever bound up with the disgrace of one of England's and Scotland's princes!