Sir Walter Raleigh

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:243-46.

In the brilliant constellation of great men which adorned the regions of Elizabeth and James, one of the most distinguished of those who added eminence in literature to high talent for active business, was SIR WALTER RALEIGH, a man whose character will always make him occupy a prominent place in the history of his country. He was born in 1552, at Hayes Farm, in Devonshire, of an ancient family; and from his youth was distinguished by great intellectual acuteness, but still more by a restless and adventurous disposition. He became a soldier at the age of seventeen; fought for the Protestant cause in the civil wars of France and the Netherlands; and afterwards, in 1579, accompanied his half brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, on a voyage to Newfoundland. This expedition proved unfortunate, but by familiarising him with a maritime life, had probably much influence in leading him to engage in these subsequent expeditions by which he rendered himself famous. In 1580 he assisted in suppressing the Earl of Desmond's rebellion in Ireland, where he obtained an estate, and was for some time governor of Cork. After this, having occasion to visit London, he attached himself to the court, and with the aid of a handsome person and winning address, contrived to insinuate himself into the favour of Elizabeth. A well-known anecdote illustrates the gallantry and tact by which he was characterised. One day, when he was attending the queen on a walk, she came to a miry part of the road, and for a moment hesitated to proceed. Raleigh, perceiving this, instantly pulled off his rich plush cloak, and, by spreading it before her feet, enabled her to pass on unsoiled. This mark of attention delighted the queen, from whom, as it has been facetiously remarked, his cloak was the means of procuring for him many a good suit. Raleigh was one of the courtiers whom she sent to attend the Duke of Anjou back to the Netherlands, after refusing that nobleman her hand. In 1584 he again joined in all adventure for the discovery and settlement of unknown countries. With the help of his friends, two ships were sent out in quest of gold mines, to that part of North America new called Virginia. Raleigh himself was not with these vessels the commodities brought home by which produced so good a return, that the owners were induced to fit out, for the next year, another fleet of seven ships, under the command of Raleigh's kinsman, Sir Richard Grenville. The attempt made on this occasion to colonise America proved an utter failure, and, after a second trial, the enterprise was given up. This expedition is said to have been the means of introducing tobacco in to England, and also of making known the potato, which was first cultivated on Raleigh's land in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the prosperity of Raleigh at the English court continued to increase. Elizabeth knighted him in 1584; and, moreover, by granting monopolies, and an additional Irish estate, conferred on him solid marks of her favour. In return for these benefits, he zealously and actively exerted himself for the defence of her majesty's dominions against the Spaniards in 1588; having not only been one (if those patriotic volunteers who sailed against the formidable and far-famed Armada in the English channel, but, as a member of her majesty's council of war, contributed, by his advice and experience, to the maturing of those defensive arrangements which led to the discomfiture of the enemy. Next year, he accompanied a number of his countrymen who went to aid the expelled king of Portugal in an attempt to regain his kingdom from the Spaniards. After his return, Elizabeth continued her largesses to him, till at length his troublesome importunities drew from her the question, 'When, Sir Walter, will you cease to he a beggar?" With his usual tact, he replied, "When your gracious majesty ceases to be a benefactor." By taking bribes, and otherwise abusing his power and the influence which he had at court, he because unpopular with the nation at large.

About this time he exerted himself to reduce to practice an idea thrown out by Montaigne, by setting up an "office of address," intended to serve the purposes now executed chiefly by literary and philosophical societies. The description of this scheme, given by Sir William Petty, affords a striking picture of the difficulties and obstacles which lay in the way of men of study and inquiry two centuries ago. It seems, says Sir William, "to have been a plan by which the wants and desires of all learned men might be made known to each other, where they might know what is already done in the business of learning, what is at present in doing, and what is intended to be done; to the end that, by such a general communication of designs and mutual assistance, the wits and endeavours of the world may no longer be as so many scattered coals, which, having no union, are soon quenched, whereas, being but laid together, they would have yielded a comfortable light and heat. For the present condition of men [in the early part of the seventeenth century] is like a field where a battle having been lately fought, we see many legs, arms, and organs of sense, lying here and there, which, for want of conjunction, and a soul to quicken and enliven them, are fit for nothing but to feed the ravens and infect the air; so we see many wits and ingenuities dispersed up and down the world, whereof some are now labouring to do what is already done, and puzzling themselves to re-invent what is already invented; others we see quite stuck fast in difficulties for default of a few directions, which some other man, might he be met withal, both could and would most easily give him. Again, one man requires a small sum of money to carry on some design that requires it, and there is perhaps another who has twice as much ready to bestow upon the same design; but these two having no means to hear the one of the other, the good work intended and desired by both parties does utterly perish and come to nothing."

When visiting his Irish estates after his return from Portugal, Raleigh formed or renewed with Spenser an acquaintance which ripened into intimate friendship. He introduced the poet to Elizabeth, and otherwise benefited hum by his patronage and encouragement; for which favour Spencer has acknowledged his obligation in his pastoral entitled "Colin Clout's Come Home Again," where Raleigh is celebrated under the title of the "Shepherd of the Ocean," and also in a letter to him, prefixed to the "Faery Queen," explanatory of the plan and design of that poem. In 1592, Sir Walter engaged in one of those predatory naval expeditions which, in Elizabeth's reign, were common against the enemies of England; a fleet of thirteen ships, besides two of her majesty's men-of-war, being intrusted to his command. This armament was destined to attack Panama, and intercept the Spanish plate fleet, but, having been recalled by Elizabeth soon after sailing, came back with a single prize. On his return, Raleigh incurred the displeasure of the virgin queen by an amour with one of her maids of honour; for which offence, though he married the lady, he suffered imprisonment for some months. While banished from the court, he undertook, at his own expense, in 1595, an expedition to Guiana, concerning whose riches many wonderful tales were then current. He, however, accomplished nothing beyond taking a formal possession of the country in the queen's name. After coming back to England, he published, in 1596, a work entitled Discovery of the Large, Rich, end Beautiful Empire of Guiana: this production Hume has very unjustly characterised as "full of the grossest and most palpable lies that were ever attempted to be imposed on the credulity of mankind." It would appear that he now regained the queen's favour, since we find him holding, in the same year, a command in the expedition against Cadiz, under the Earl of Essex and Lord Effingham. In the successful attack on that town, his bravery, as well as prudence, was very conspicuous. In 1597, he was rear-admiral in the expedition which sailed under Essex to intercept the Spanish West-India fleet; and by capturing Fayal, one of the Azores, before the arrival of the commander-in-chief, gave great offence to the earl, who considered himself robbed of the glory of the action. A temporary reconciliation was effected: but Raleigh afterwards heartily joined with Cecil in promoting the downfall of Essex, and was a spectator of his execution from a window in the Armoury. On the accession of James I., which followed soon after, the prosperity of Raleigh came to an end, a dislike against him having previously been instilled by Cecil into the royal ear. Through the malignant scheming of this same hypocritical minister, he was accused of conspiring to dethrone the king, and place the crown on the head of Arabella Stuart; and likewise of attempting to excite sedition, and to establish popery by the aid of foreign powers. A trial for highs treason ensued, and upon the paltriest evidence, he was condemned by a servile jury. Sir Edward Coke, who was then attorney-general, abused him on this occasion in violent and disgraceful terms, bestowing upon him freely such epithets as viper, damnable atheist, the most vile and execrable traitor that ever lived, monster, and spider of hell. Raleigh defended himself with such temper, eloquence, and strength of reasoning, that some even of his enemies were convinced of his innocence, and all parties were ashamed of the judgment pronounced. He was, however, reprieved, and instead of being executed, was committed to the Tower, in which his wife was permitted to bear him company. During the twelve years of his imprisonment, he wrote the chief portion of his works, especially the History of the World, of which only a part was finished, comprehending the period from the creation to the downfall of the Macedonian empire, about 170 years before Christ. This was published in 1614. The excellent way in which he treats the histories of Greece and Rome, has excited just regret that so great a portion of the work is devoted to Jewish and Rabbinical learning — subjects which have withdrawn too much of the author's attention from more interesting departments of his scheme. The learning and genius of Raleigh, who, in the words of Hume, "being educated amidst naval and military enterprises, had surpassed in the pursuits of literature even those of the most recluse and sedentary lives," have excited much admiration; but Mr. D'Israeli has lately attempted to diminish the wonder, by asserting, on the authority of Ben Jonson and a manuscript in the Landsowne collection, that our historian was materially aided by the contributions of his learned friends. Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that Raleigh "esteemed more fame than conscience. The best wits in England were employed in making his history; Ben himself had written a piece to him of the Punic war, which he altered and set in his book." According to the manuscript above-mentioned, a still more important helper was a "Dr. Robert Barrel, rector of Northwald, in the county of Norfolk, who was a great favourite of Sir Walter Raleigh, and had been his chaplain. All, or the greatest part, of the drudgery of Sir Walter's history, for criticisms, chronology, and reading Greek and Hebrew authors, was performed by him for Sir Walter." Mr. Tytler, in his recent "Life of Raleigh," has, however, shown that there is no good reason for supposing Raleigh's obligations to his friends to have been greater than those of literary men in general, when similarly circumstanced; and, moreover, that it was not left for Mr. D'Israeli to discover the fact, that Raleigh had obtained such assistance from the individuals whom be specifies.

Both in style and matter, this celebrated work is vastly superior to all the English historical productions which had previously appeared. Its style, though partaking of the faults of the age, in being frequently stiff and inverted, has less of these defects than the diction of any other writer of the time. Mr. Tytler, with justice, commends it as "vigorous, purely English, and possessing an antique richness of ornament, similar to what pleases us when we see some ancient priory or stately manor-house, and compare it with our more modern mansions." "The work," he adds, "is laborious without being heavy, learned without being dry, acute and ingenious without degenerating into the subtle but trivial distinctions of the schoolmen. Its narrative is clear and spirited, and the matter collected from the most authentic sources. The opinions of the author on state-policy, on the causes of great events, on the different forms of government, on naval or military tactics, on agriculture, commerce, manufactures, and other sources of national greatness, are not the mere echo of other minds, but the results of experience, drawn from the study of a long life spent in constant action and vicissitude, in various climates and countries, and from personal labour in offices of high trust and responsibility. But perhaps its most striking feature is the sweet tone of philosophic melancholy which pervades the whole. Written in prison during the quiet evening of a tempestuous life, we feel, in its perusal, that we are the companions of a superior mind, nursed in contemplation, and chastened and improved by sorrow, in which the bitter recollection of injury, and the asperity of resentment, have passed away, leaving only the heavenly lesson, that all is vanity."

We shall commence our quotations from Raleigh with one in which the merits of the book are not represented, but which is instructive, as showing the childishness with which men argued in those days upon subjects they understood not, and could not understand.