Of this great, this high-minded, but unfortunate man, it will not be expected that, in his military, naval, or political character, any detail should here be given; it is only with Sir Walter, as a poet, that we are at present engaged, and therefore, after stating that he was born in 1552, at Hayes Farm, in the parish of Budley in Devonshire, and that, to the eternal disgrace of James the First, he perished on a scaffold in 1618, we proceed to record the singular circumstance, that, until the year 1813, no lover of our literature has thought it necessary to collect his poetry. The task, however, has at length been performed, in a most elegant and pleasing manner, by Sir Egerton Brydges, and we have only to regret that the pieces which he has been able to throw together, should prove so few. Yet we may be allowed to express some surprise, that two poems quoted as Sir Walter's in Sir Egerton's edition of Phillips's Theatrum Poetarum, should not have found a place in this collection. Of these, the first is attributed to Raleigh, on the authority of MSS. in the British Museum, and is entitled, "Sir Walter Raleigh in the Unquiet Rest of his last Sickness," a production equally admirable for its sublimity and Christian morality, and for the strength and concinnity of its expression; the second, of which the closing couplet is quoted by Puttenham as our author's, is given entire by Oldys from a transcript by Lady Isabella Thynne, where it is designated as "The Excuse written by Sir Walter Raleigh in his younger years," and though vitiated by conceit, appears to be well authenticated. These, together with two fragments preserved by Puttenham, would have proved welcome additions to the volume, and, with the exception of his "Cynthia," a poem in praise of the Queen, and now lost, might probably have included all that has been attributed to the muse of Raleigh.
The poetry of our bard seems to have been highly valued in his own days; Puttenham says, that "for dittie and amorous ode, I finde Sir Walter Rawleygh's vayne most loftie, insolent, and passionate;" and Bolton affirms, that "the English poems of Sir Walter Raleigh are not easily to be mended;" opinions which, even in the nineteenth century, a perusal of his poems will tend to confirm. Of vigour of diction, and moral energy of thought, the pieces entitled, "A Description of the Country's Recreations;" a "Vision upon the Fairy Queen;" the "Farewell," and the Lines written in "his last Sickness," may be quoted as exemplars: and for amatory sweetness, and pastoral simplicity, few efforts will be found to surpass the poems distinguished as "Phillida's Love-call;" "The Shepherd's Description of Love;" the "Answer to Marlow," and "The Silent Lover."
The general estimate of Raleigh as a poet, has been sketched by Sir E. Brydges [in his Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh: now first collected] with his usual felicity of illustration, and as the impression with which he has favoured the public is very limited, and must necessarily soon become extremely scarce, a transcript from this portion of his introductory matter will have its due value with the reader.
"Do I pronounce Raleigh a poet? Not, perhaps, in the judgment of a severe criticism. Raleigh, in his better days, was too much occupied in action to have cultivated all the powers of a poet, which require solitude and perpetual meditation, and a refinement of sensibility, such as intercourse with business and the world deadens!
"But, perhaps, it will be pleaded, that his long years of imprisonment gave him leisure for meditation, more than enough! It has been beautifully said by Lovelace, that
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage,
so long as the mind is free. But broken spirits, and indescribable injuries and misfortunes do not agree with the fervour required by the Muse. Hope, that 'sings of promised pleasure,' could never visit him in his dreary bondage: and Ambition, whose lights had hitherto led him through difficulties and dangers and sufferings, must now have kept entirely aloof from one, whose fetters disabled him lo follow as a votary in her train. Images of rural beauty, quiet, and freedom might, perhaps, have added, by the contrast, to the poignancy of his present painful situation; and he might rather prefer the severity of menial labour in unravelling the dreary and comfortless records of perplexing History in remote ages of war and bloodshed, than to quicken his sensibilities by lingering amid the murmurs of Elysian waterfalls!
"There are times when we dare not stir our feelings or our fancies; when the only mode of reconciling ourselves to the excruciating pressure of our sorrows is the encouragement of a dull apathy, which will allow none but the coarser powers of the intellect to operate.
"The production of an Heroic Poem would have nobly employed this illustrious Hero's mighty faculties, during the lamentable years of his unjust incarceration. But could he delight to dwell on the tale of Heroes, to whom the result of Heroism had been oppression, imprisonment, ruin, and condemnation to death?
"We have no proof that Raleigh possessed the copious, vivid, and creative powers of Spenser; nor is it probable that any cultivation would have brought forth from him fruit equally rich. But even in the careless fragments now presented to the reader, I think we can perceive some traits of attraction and excellence which, perhaps, even Spenser wanted. If less diversified than that gifted bard, be would, I think, have sometimes been more forcible and sublime. His images would have been more gigantic, and his reflections more daring. With all his mental attention keenly bent on the busy slate of existing things in political society, the range of his thoughts had been lowered down to practical wisdom; but other habits of intellectual exercise, excursions into the ethereal fields of fiction, and converse with the spirits which inhabit those upper regions, would have given a grasp and a colour to his conceptions as magnificent as the fortitude of his soul!"