Amongst all the restless, fervid, adventurous spirits of the Elizabethan age perhaps there is more so conspicuous for those characteristics as Sir Waiter Raleigh. A soldier from his youth; at an early period connected with the great maritime movements of his time; ever the foremost hater and antagonist of Spain and all its works; one of the first, if not the first, to fully conceive the idea of colonisation and to attempt so realise it, and at the same time taking an active — too active — part in the party intrigues and contentions of a court where the struggle for place and favour never ceased raging, yet amidst all his schemes and enterprises, noble and ignoble, finding leisure also for far other interests and pursuits; capable of a keen enjoyment of poetry; himself a poet of a true and genuine quality, — he is in a singular degree the representative of the vigorous versatility of the Elizabethan period.
His high imaginativeness is perceptible in the political conception, and dreams which abounded in his busy brain. It can scarcely be doubted that, had his energies received a different direction, he would have won a distinguished place amongst the distinguished poets of his day. He whom Spenser styles "the summer's nightingale" might have poured forth a full volume of song of rare strength and sweetness. But, as is was, he found little time for singing; the wonder is he found any — that one so cumbered about much serving did not become altogether of the world worldly, that so occupied with actualities he still was visited even transiently by visions of divine things.
We are apt to pity his misfortunes; and yet it may be they were the blessings of his chequered life. His disgraces and confinements in the Tower would after all seem to have been the times when his nobler self was asserted, and he communed with his own heart.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.
We have no pleasanter picture of him than that Spenser draws, when "faultless" debarred from the presence of his "Cynthia the Lady of the Sea," he had withdrawn himself to his Irish estate and thence visited his neighbour the poet.
He sitting me beside in that same shade,
Provoked me to play some pleasant fit;
And when he heard the music which I made,
He found himself full greatly pleased at it.
Yet aemuling my pipe, he took in hand
My pipe, before that aemuled of many,
And played thereon (for well that skill he conn'd),
Himself as skilful in that art as any.
He pip'd, I sang; and when he sang I pip'd
By change of turns each making other merry;
Neither envying other, nor envied;
So piped we, until we both were weary.
It is impossible not to connect two at least of his most famous pieces — The Lie and The Pilgrimage — with similar passages of his life, when, for one reason or another, he was "under a cloud," as he thought, but really in a clearer air. His imprisonments were in fact his salvations. Through the Traitor's Gate he passed to a tranquillity and thoughtfulness for which there seemed no opportunity outside. In his cell in the White Tower his soul found and enjoyed a real freedom.
Then, like a bird, it sits and sings,
Then whets and claps its silver wings,
And till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.
It is a significant tradition attached to several of his verses, that they were written the night before he was beheaded. Of only one poem it is likely to be true; in respect of several it can be certainly disproved; but it illustrates the impression often produced by his poetry. The sweet clear voice comes so us, as it were, through a barred and grated window; and calls up the image of a solitary figure soothing and quieting itself with the thought, too often forgotten elsewhere and in other days, that there is a higher life than that of the courtier, a more splendid preferment than an earthly sovereign can give.
His poetic writings are but scanty in amount. One at least, his Cinthia, is lost; part of a continuation of it, extant in a Hatfield MS., has been lately printed for the first time. His fame has been damaged by the unauthorised ascription to him of inferior and worthless pieces; and, on the other hand, by taking away from him what he undoubtedly wrote. In respect of both rejection and appropriation, Dr. Hannah has performed for him a much-needed service in his excellent volume, The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh collected and authenticated, with those of Sir Henry Wotton and other Courtly Poets from 1540 to 1650.