1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Walter Raleigh

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:465-66.



1618, Oct. 29. Upon this day was beheaded, in Old Palace-yard, London, sir Walter Raleigh, of whom it is not too much to say, that he was the most eminent man of the age in which he lived; an age enlightened by his talents, and improved by his example. He was the fourth son of Walter Raleigh, esq., of Fardel, near Plymouth. He studied at Oriel college, Oxford, for a short time, but, when only seventeen, was one of a hundred gentlemen whom queen Elizabeth allowed to assist the protestants in France. He served afterwards in the Netherlands, under sir John Norris, in 1578; the next year he joined an unsuccessful expedition to America; and distinguished himself, in 1580, in Ireland. His introduction to Elizabeth has already been noticed at page 443 ante, and from that time be rose rapidly in her favour, and was enriched by her with places and lands. He availed himself of his court favour to obtain letters patent for discovering unknown countries, and took possession of that part of America which is called Virginia, after the virgin queen.

Upon his return, he was returned to parliament for Devonshire, and soon afterwards knighted. He was also favoured by a licence to sell wine throughout the kingdom! He continued in favour, and engaged in various public employments, both civil and military, till 1593, when he justly offended the queen by an intrigue with the daughter of sir Nicholas Throgmorton. Both he and his partner in guilt were confined for several months, and, when set at liberty, forbidden the court. He married her, however, and lived with her afterwards in the strictest conjugal affection. The next year he was entirely restored to favour, and enriched by his royal mistress with the manor of Sherborne, that had been alienated from the church.

In 1597, his enterprising spirit was gratified by two expeditions to Guiana, the first of which was conducted by himself, and by his being employed at sea in active service against the Spaniards. On the fall of his rival, Essex, he disgraced himself by entreating sir Robert Cecil to show him no mercy. Though sir Robert took his advice, there was no sincere friendship between him and Raleigh: and on the accession of James, the latter was stript of his preferments, and accused and condemned of high treason. After being kept for a month at Winchester, in daily expectation of death, he was reprieved and confined for some years in the Tower, where he composed many works. After twelve years' imprisonment, he received a commission from the king to explore the gold mines of Guiana. The expedition was unsuccessful; the Spanish monarch enraged, by the burning of a town; and, in spite of the just reasoning of Bacon, James had the meanness to have this great man executed in consequence of his former attainder. He entreated the spectators, that if any disability of voice or dejection of countenance should appear in him, they would impute it to the disorder of his body (he was suffering from the ague), rather than to any dismayedness of mind. He confessed his grievous offences, and begged the prayers of all who heard him. Having fingered the axe, he said, smiling, to the sheriff, "this is a sharp medicine, but it is a sound cure for all diseases." The executioner knelt down and asked him forgiveness, which Raleigh, laying his hand upon his shoulder, granted. Then being asked which way he would lay himself on the block, he answered, "so the heart be right, it is no matter which way the head lies." After a little pause, he lifted up his hand, and his head was struck off at two blows, his body never shrinking nor moving.

"Authors are perplexed," says Wood, "under what topic to place him; whether of statesman, seaman, soldier, chemist, or chronologer, for in all these he did excel; and it still remains a dispute whether the age he lived in was more obliged to his pen or his sword, the one being busy in conquering the new, the other in so bravely describing the old world." A peninsula is too cheap to purchase the life of such another man. The mark of Raleigh will stand as a continent supported by opposite seas; for the wanton root of favouritism bursts into honour before the turbulent gust which swept him from the earth. Thomson thus speaks of Raleigh:

Who can speak
The numerous worthies of the maiden reign?
In Raleigh mark their every glory mix'd;
Raleigh, the scourge of Spain whose breast with all
The sage, the patriot, and the hero burn'd.
Nor sunk his vigour, when a coward-reign
The warrior fetter'd, and at last resign'd
To glut the vengeance of a vanquish'd foe.
The active stilt and unrestraln'd, his mind
Explor'd the vast extent of ages past,
And with his prison-hours enrich'd the world;
But found no times, in all the long research,
So glorious, or so base, as those he proved,
In those he conquered, and in those he bled.

It is peculiar to the fate of Raleigh, that having before suffered a long imprisonment with the expectation of a public death, his mind had been accustomed to its contemplation, and often dwelt on the event which was now passing. The soul, in its sudden departure, and its future state, is often the subject of his few poems. The following beautiful song called the Farewell, is attributed to Raleigh:

Go, soul! the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand,
Fear not to touch the best,
The truth shall he thy warrant;
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie?

Tell zeal it lacks devotion,
Tell tore it is but lost,
Tell time it is but motion,
Tell flesh it is hot dust;
And wish them not reply,
For thou must give the lie!

Ten fortune of her blindness,
Tell nature of decay,
Tell friendship of unkindness,
Tell justice of delay;
And if they will reply,
Then give them ALL the lie!

And when thou hast as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing,
Although to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing;
Yet stab at thee who win,
No stab the soul can kill!

Sir Walter Raleigh's unfinished History of the World, which leaves us to regret that later ages had not been celebrated by his sublime eloquence, was the fruits of eleven years of imprisonment. It was written for the use of prince Henry, as he and Dallington, who also wrote Aphorisms for the same prince, have told us; the prince looked over the manuscript. Of Raleigh it is observed, to employ the language of Hume, "they were struck with the extensive genius of the man, who, being educated amidst naval and military enterprises, had surpassed, in the pursuits of literature, even those of the most recluse and sedentary lives: and they admired his unbroken magnanimity, which at his age, and under his circumstances, could engage him to undertake and execute so great a work as his History of the World." He was, however, assisted in this great work by the learning of several eminent persons; a circumstance which has not been noticed.

The scenes in which illustrious men have been found to enjoy the pleasures of retirement and reflection, must be dear to every heart; so the name of Sherborne Lodge, in Dorsetshire, is consecrated by the name of Raleigh, the grove which he planted, and the walk which he formed, still bear his name.