It is difficult exactly to estimate the poetical character of this great man, as many of the pieces that are ascribed to him have not been authenticated. Among these is the Soul's Farewell, which possesses a fire of imagination that we would willingly ascribe to him; but his claim to it, as has already been mentioned, is exceedingly doubtful. The tradition of his having written it on the night before his execution, is highly interesting to the fancy, but, like many fine stories, it has the little defect of being untrue, as the poem was in existence more than twenty years before his death. It has accordingly been placed in this collection, with several other pieces to which his name has been conjecturally affixed, among the anonymous poetry of that period.
Sir Walter was born at Hayes Farm, in Devonshire, and studied at Oxford. Leaving the university at seventeen, he fought for six years under the Protestant banners in France, and afterwards served a campaign in the Netherlands. He next distinguished himself in Ireland during the rebellion of 1580, under the lord deputy Lord Grey de Wilton, with whom his personal disputes eventually promoted his fortunes; for being heard in his own cause on returning to England, he won the favour of Elizabeth, who knighted him, and raised him to such honours as alarmed the jealousy of her favourite Leicester.
In the mean time, as early as 1579, he had commenced his adventures with a view to colonize America — surveyed the territory now called Virginia, in 1584, and fitted out successive fleets in support of the infant colony. In the destruction of the Spanish armada, as well as in the expedition to Portugal in behalf of Don Antonio, he had his full share of action and glory; and though recalled, in 1592, from the appointment of general of the expedition against Panama, he must have made a princely fortune by the success of his fleet, which sailed upon the occasion, and returned with the richest prize that had ever been brought to England. The queen was about this period so indignant with him for an amour which he had with one of her maids of honour, that, though he married the lady, (she was the daughter of Sir Nicholas Throgmorton,) her majesty committed him, with his fair partner, to the Tower. The queen forgave him, however, at last, and rewarded his services with a grant of the manor of Sherborne, in Dorsetshire, where he built a magnificent seat. Raleigh's mind was not one that was destined to travel in the wheel-ruts of common prejudice. It was rumoured that he had carried the freedom of his philosophical speculation to an heretical height on many subjects; and his acceptance of the church lands of Sherborne, already mentioned, probably supplied additional motives to the clergy to swell the outcry against his principles. He was accused (by the jesuits) of atheism — a charge which his own writings sufficiently refute. Whatever were his opinions, the public saved him the trouble of explaining them; and the queen, taking it for granted that they must be bad, gave him an open, and no doubt, edifying reprimand. To console himself under these circumstances, he projected the conquest of Guiana, sailed thither in 1595, and having captured the city of San Joseph, returned and published an account of his voyage. In the following year he acted gallantly under the Earl of Essex, at Cadiz, as well as in what was called the Island Voyage. On the latter occasion he failed of complete success only through the jealousy of the favourite.
His letter to Cecil, in which he exhorted that statesman to the destruction of Essex, forms but too sad and notorious a blot in our hero's memory; yet even that offence will not reconcile us to behold the successor of Elizabeth robbing Raleigh of his estate to bestow it on the minion Carr; and on the grounds of a plot in which his participation was never proved, condemning to fifteen years of imprisonment the man who had enlarged the empire of his country, and the boundaries of human knowledge. James could estimate the wise, but shrunk from cordiality with the brave. He released Raleigh, from avaricious hopes about the mine of Guiana; and when disappointed in that object, sacrificed him to motives still baser than avarice. On the 29th of October, 1618, Raleigh perished on a scaffold, in Old Palace-yard, by a sentence originally iniquitous, and which his commission to Guiana had virtually revoked.