Samuel Egerton Brydges incorporates the dedicatory sonnets appended to The Faerie Queene into a historical tale describing the political broils attending the accession of King James to the English throne. The central character, Sir Ralph Willoughby, is a courtier-poet whose family had been banished for participating in the Northern Rebellion against Elizabeth. He is permitted to return to England, and serves for a while in Burleigh's household. After his dismissal Willoughby waits on Essex and befriends Sir Walter Raleigh, whose political schemes eventually bring about his demise.
While Spenser does not appear in the novel, he is implicit throughout in the criticisms of the court and in the hero's commitments to virtue and poetry. If Spenser's sonnets do not seem like promising material for a novel, Brydges insists that it was not a novel that he was trying to write. The narrative, such as it is, becomes a pretext for reflections on the principal political characters of the period from 1595 to 1603. To the extent possible, Spenser's characters become the agents of Brydges's work, and Spenser's judgments become the ground for Brydges's judgments. Brydges was equally familiar with the judgments on the Jacobean era passed by the Spenserian poets (several of whom he had earlier published at his private press), so that Sir Ralph Willoughby becomes, in effect, a belated echo of the writings of Michael Drayton, Richard Niccols, and Browne of Tavistock.
Preface: "This work, as it has been said, aspires to no such creative richness [as Scott's historical romances]: it is intended as a vehicle of moral and historical remarks; which notwithstanding the volume may be confounded by the ignorant with common Novels, will not on that account, if they are intrinsically just, lose their interest with the judicious" pp. 23-24.
The tale was published anonymously, though the preface is signed "S. E. B., Florence." In Brydges's next novel, The Hall of Hellingsby (1821), set in Stuart England, characters read the Faerie Queene.
Gentleman's Magazine: "This Tale commences in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but is principally laid in that of King James I. It developes the characters of State, under the sceptre of the last Monarch, especially Raleigh, and those connected with the Plot, (or supposed Plot), which goes by his name. All the commendatory Sonnets prefixed to Spenser's Fairy Queen are introduced, with characters of the Persons, to whom they are dedicated" 91 (September 1821) 252.
Mary Katherine Woodworth: "Sir Ralph Willoughby is essentially a tour de force to introduce into a Gothic tale the personages honoured by the Dedicatory Sonnets to the Faerie Queene" The Literary Career of Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges (1935) 50; 114n.
Ralph Willoughby is a member of the Delapoles, a family proscribed for taking part in the Northern Rebellion against Elizabeth. Educated in Europe, he is permitted to return to England and encouraged by his father to mend the family's fortunes. Despite the fact that his natural abilities and superior birth only create enemies among the younger gentry, Ralph is hired as a secretary by Lord Burleigh. But politics proving uncongenial, "He gave himself up to the composition of a poem, in which there was a mingled enthusiasm, in favour of romantic love and heroic birth" p. 7.
Ralph begins a poem, rather in the manner of the Faerie Queene: "This composition abounded with Imaginary Personages, designed with a free and glowing pencil: and luxuriating in ideal Beings, in which the fancy knows that it is dealing with excellence unattainable in the human form" p. 16. His enemies suggest to Burleigh that he is libeled in it, and that state secrets were betrayed. In a long monologue, Burleigh declares his dislike for poetry and poets. But worse is to come: Ralph's enemies use an allegorical interpretation to persuade Burghley's vain daughter Gersenda that she is despised by the poet, and Gersenda has Ralph dismissed from the minister's service.
Willoughby next enters the household of the Earl of Essex, where poetry is welcome and all is youthful, daring, dynamic, and dangerous. There Ralph befriends Sir Walter Raleigh, Northumberland, and Cobham. Ralph is invited to Cobham Hall, where Raleigh is forming a cabal. We learn of Raleigh's opinion of Sir Philip Sidney: "he said that his powers were not equal to his wishes, that he was somewhat of a precisian: and that he weakened his faculties by diffusion: and by an attempt at too universal excellence" p. 52. Ralph defends the Countess of Pembroke against Raleigh's charge that she had more learning than wit. Raleigh encourages Ralph to undertake a secret mission to Scotland, but Ralph prudently will have nothing to do with state matters.
Disgusted, Willoughby retires to a cottage in Whichwood Forest, reflecting "it is intrigue, and plot that succeeds: and he, who unites the most audacity with the deepest design wins the game. From Burleigh to Essex; from Essex to Raleigh, it is all a bed of thorns" pp. 68-69. Ralph retires to rest, and is troubled by a vision: Essex appears, bleeding at the neck, reproaching Ralph for not coming to his assistance. Ralph cries out in terror, which brings the attractive cottage-girl, Rosalinde, to his side.
Ralph Willoughby was the third of six sons of Sir Charles Willoughby Knight, who used the title of Lord Uffington, though that honour had been attainted and forfeited, in consequence of his Father's concern in the Northern rebellion of the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland.
These misfortunes had forced Lord Uffington abroad; and there he had passed many years of his life in comparative obscurity. He had wandered from the Netherlands through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. His children had thus received a varied and enlarged education; and were all accomplished, as far as their native talents would admit.
Ralph had shewn more abilities than the rest; a much greater quickness in learning; and a more active and acute spirit of remark. But he was supposed to be more moody in his temper; and less compliant to the manners and habits of society, than his brothers.
What recommended him especially to his father's favour and notice was a plaintive yet indignant resentment of the adversity and fallen state of his family. The mode in which he felt, and excited interest, on this subject, gave it a sort of character of romance.
Lord Uffington made every effort to obtain Q. Elizabeth's reconciliation and forgiveness: but the Queen was stern and little inclined to feel the emotions of compassion. He had another obstacle in his way: he was of the blood of the Delapoles, who were a proscribed race.
The utmost concession he could procure was a licence to his sons to visit England; and to endeavour by courses of fidelity and loyalty to lay the grounds of future mercy.
Ralph, in particular, was fixed upon by his Father for this purpose: and his slender means were strained to enable him to do it with effect. Lord Uffington had a very high opinion of Ralph's genius; and trusted to the fruits of it, in worldly advancement, with the fondest and brightest anticipations.
Ralph was as ambitious and as sanguine, as his father would have him to be: but there was not an exact agreement in their ideas of ways and means. Each was so fearful of a clearer understanding upon this subject; and so desirous to delude himself that, each carefully avoided pressing the other to be explicit.
Ralph was far from being at his ease in England. He made no progress among persons of consequence: he gained no notice for his talents. He was deficient in that apparent compliance with the genius and conduct of others, which is the grand mean of worldly success. He trusted to reason, to eloquence, to the consciousness of rectitude.
It is always as dangerous to be above, as to be below the age, in which we live. Willoughby's very qualities of preeminence were in his way. His talents raised envy and hatred; his birth caused equal disinclination towards him.
It was denied, that the long line of illustrious blood, that flowed in his veins, gave any pretension to distinction, or favour. Actual wealth; immediate possession of place, or power, were asserted to be the only practical titles to preference in the distribution of promotion, honours, confidence, employment. Yet the men, who set forth these grounds of favouritism, gave themselves the most insolent airs of birth to those, who were their inferiors in descent, but their superiors in wealth.
There were certain new families in those days, as in these, who endeavoured to bear down all by the weight of purse.
An accident at length introduced Ralph into the acquaintance of the Minister Lord Burleigh. That Minister had occasion for a young man familiar with the manners of a particular Court. Ralph had spent several of his early years there. A friend took the opportunity of introducing him upon that ground.
Lord Burleigh listened to his answers on the questions put to him with profound attention. He was pleased with his clearness; and the sagacity of his remarks. The character of one person especially, of whom Lord Burleigh required particulars, was given with so much vivacity, and discrimination, that the old statesman began to think, that Ralph might be of especial service to him.
He took him into favour: the period was critical: sagacity, deep insight, varied knowledge, were requisite: the routine of office failed: the foresight, which could judge of future conduct in untried situations, was demanded. Lord Burleigh found Ralph equal to the occasion.
Ralph now for a time ruled over the Minister's bureau. His ascendancy had too broad a light, not to daunt his competitors in the same office. Ralph's fortune seemed made: he thought so himself. A daughter of Burleigh cast favourable eyes on him: the Minister himself seemed to wink at it.
When the occasion had passed, Ralph relapsed into intellectual pursuits more congenial to his nature. He always returned in a short time from the thorny paths of politics in disgust. He gave himself up to the composition of a poem, in which there was a mingled enthusiasm, in favour of romantic love and heroic birth.
Meantime the common duties of office were neglected; while the clouds, that had been gathering on the Continent against England, were dispersed. — The men of common minds and vulgar business, again raised their heads, and resumed their courage.
An intrigue was now formed to oust Ralph from Burleigh's confidence.
Ralph, careless, self-relying, without craft, and without management, either overlooked, or disdained, the nets that were gathering round him. He neither concealed his propensities, nor his disgusts. He circumvented no enemy: he boldly came forward with open arms against him.
His poetical talents were slily enlarged upon to Burleigh on every occasion. Burleigh hated poetry: he thought that it was a disqualification for all that was solid in the conduct of life. He disliked it still more, because it was the passion of his enraged son-in-law, Edward Vere, Earl of Oxford.
The history of the quarrel between the Old Statesman and the poetical Peer yet remains in some obscurity. It is said that the Earl, in resentment for Burleigh's refusal to save the Duke of Norfolk, vented his anger upon the Countess; and dissipated his fortune that he might beggar her children. The story is out of all probability. Who would greatly injure himself directly, that he might injure another more remotely; and in a less degree?
Oxford was, a capricious character, vain; proud; and perhaps unprincipled. The more rational conjecture is, that his conduct was instigated by complicated causes.
He had perhaps married Burleigh's daughter from motives of interest. The fortunes of his illustrious House were in some degree of decay: the political consequence of the old families was also declining under Burleigh. Oxford might hope that this alliance would re-instate him; and give facilities to his aspiring ambition: while the minister, a new man, might be anxious to cover his new honours by the marriage of his daughter with a Peer, perhaps the most ancient and illustrious in birth, of all the English nobility.
Expectation is almost always disappointed. Possession and familiarity might bring chagrin on both sides. Burleigh could scarcely behold the qualities of Oxford's mind, brought under the expansion of the sun, without discomfort; and afterwards when ill will had commenced, without abhorrence and disgust. There is nothing, which this class of men hate, like fancy and sentiment. The whole discipline of their intellects is bent to divest every object, and every idea, of every colour thrown upon them by these creative influences. They think Poetry not only devoid of superiority, but a positively false and delusive Art. Now and then they are heard to cite a couplet, or three or four verses, with praise: but examine the character of that citation: it will be found to be some dry precept; some practical axiom; which has nothing of the character of poetry but the metre; and nothing of the beauty of expression but terseness.
It is not here meant to bring forward Lord Oxford as a great genius; or of any striking poetical merit. Though perhaps he ought only to be classed among the minor wits, he had wit enough to be the fair object of Lord Burleigh's distaste.
Ralph Willoughby, though a lover of similar walks of literature, was not on cordial terms with Lord Oxford. He found this nobleman too reserved; too affected; too selfish. Let me be excused, after what I have said, for introducing, here Two of Spenser's Sonnets, prefixed to the Fairy Queen; the accuracy of which way now be duly appreciated, while they will furnish proof of the fidelity of my portraits.
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, THE LORD BURLEIGH, LORD OF ENGLAND.
To you, right noble Lord, whose careful breast
To menage of most grave affairs is bent;
And on whose mighty shoulders most doth rest
The burden of this Kingdom's government;
Is the wide compass of the Firmament
On Atlas' mighty shoulders is upstaid;
Unfitly I these idle rhymes present,
The labour of lost time, and wit unstaid:
Yet, if their deeper sense be inly weigh'd;
And the dim veil, with which from common view
Their fairer parts are hid, aside be laid,
Perhaps not vain they may appear to you!
Such as they be, vouchsafe them to receive;
And wipe their faults out of your censure grave.
The sarcasm at Burleigh for his contempt of poetry, is here sufficiently apparent: he calls it ironically "The labour of lost time, and wit unstaid:" then goes on slily to defend it against this insinuation.
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, THE EARL OF OXENFORD, HIGH CHAMBERLAIN ENGLAND. ETC.
Receive, most noble Lord, in gentle gree
The unripe fruit of an unready wit;
Which by thy countenance doth crave to be
Defended from foul Envy's poisonous bit:
Which so to do doth thee right well befit,
Sith th' antique glory of thine ancestry
Under a shady veil is therein writ;
And eke thine own long-living memory
Succeeding them in true nobility;
And also for the love, which thou dost bear
To th' Heliconian Imps, and they to thee!
They unto thee, and thou to them most dear!
Dear as thou art unto thyself; so love
That loves and honours thee, as doth behove!
I think it cannot be questioned that the two last lines of this Sonnet contain a sarcasm, as strong as that in the passage of the former Sonnet pointed at Burleigh.
It was against Burleigh that the following well-known and beautiful passage of this Poet's Mother Hubberd's Tale was levelled.
Full little knowest thou, that hast not tried,
What hell it is in suing long to bide;
To lose good days, that might be better spent;
To waste long nights in pensive discontent;
To speed to day, to be put back to-morrow;
To feed on hope; to pine with fear and sorrow,
To have thy Prince's grace; yet want her Peer's
To have thy asking, yet wait many years;
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares;
To eat thy heart with comfortless despairs;
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run;
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone!
It was at this time, and under the prevalence of these notions, that the secret enemies of Ralph Willoughby disclosed to Burleigh the extent of his addiction to poetical pursuits. They procured surreptitiously the outline of his Poem, and many large extracts.
This composition abounded with Imaginary Personages, designed with a free and glowing pencil: and luxuriating in ideal Beings, in which the fancy knows that it is dealing with excellence unattainable in the human form.
It was the purpose of the betrayers of this poem, to give it a literal interpretation, political, or personal. A pretence was made to give a construction to numerous passages, by which the life of Burleigh was said to he alluded to; and not only bitterly censured, but libelled. Even the atrocious falsehood was hazarded, that this mode was taken to betray secrets abroad, learned from Burleigh in confidential capacity. To add plausibility to this, and at the same time to aggravate his treachery, it was insinuated that Ralph was nothing more than a spy for the Foreign Interests, in which his Family had formerly been engaged; and that a variety of Cabinet-secrets were thus to he laid open to them; while there thus seemed to be an impunity in the transaction; and an impossibility to bring the treason home to him.
It required much ingenuity to give any appearance, and, still more, any consistency, to these charges. Three or four very subtle heads, easily found in Burleigh's Household, did this. They employed themselves a whole winter in constructing it. They had emissaries in the family of Lord Uffington abroad: and they procured by bribery the agency of a person, who had formerly, when a young man, been in the Northern Rebellion with the Lords Westmoreland and Northumberland.
Burleigh was now growing very old and his faculties were beginning to decay. He was fully conscious of the intrigues, the caution, the industry, the artifices, which he himself had been successful; and he knew therefore that for that path of preeminence there was no rest. By the same modes as he had triumphed over others, would others triumph over him, the moment he relaxed his exertions. His latter days therefore were not days of dignified repose, but of tormenting anxiety. He had now become not merely cautions, and inquisitive, but morbidly auspicious, and fretful. Such a scheme as Ralph's enemies had formed, could not at an earlier period have had a chance of success.
Burleigh's last daughter had for some time encouraged the addresses of Ralph. It was flattering to a young man, the younger son of a ruined family, to be distinguished. Gersenda Cecil was a perfect coquet; lively, sensible, sagacious, witty. She had a brown, but clear complexion, expressive eyes, and good features. Her person was small, but delicately made. When Ralph was in her father's highest favour, she was struck with his talents, his person, and his manners. She began then to please herself with the lustre of his birth; and to see in him the revival of all the honours, and all the power, of his family.
Ralph had strongly in his mind his father's wishes and injunctions. He saw fully all the advantages of this alliance: his sanguine temper fancied, in what he wished, all that his judgment ought approve. He began to be in love with the creature of his imagination. Gersenda took, in his mind, colours which did not belong to her: and he worshiped the idol formed by his own brain.
The plotters against the esteem, in which he had hitherto been held by Burleigh, now began to perceive that they had made some impression on the opinions of the Old Statesman. He said to himself "the verses shewn to me are certainly Willoughby's composition: they are many of them in his own handwriting; and they are so marked with erasures and corrections, as to prove that they cannot be copies. This I take to be strong prima facie presumption against the young man. When I took him into my service, I had not a suspicion that he had this silly turn. I lay it down as a rule, which scarcely admits of an exception, that no man continues for any time fit for business; or is ever to be relied upon for that patient perseverance, by which alone success in the management of human affairs is secured, — who is tinged by the mania of this empty pursuit.
"I have been tolerably lucky in the world: I have raised myself from a very moderate station, into rank, and affluence, and power, such as few subjects have long enjoyed in England; especially in tempestuous times. The Nation, and I may add, Europe generally, have given me credit for abilities, and wisdom. I am well aware that these qualities, if I possess them, have had but one source. It is labour: well-directed and unrelaxing labour! the labour of separating truth from falsehood; of stripping all the objects of life of their disguises; of seeing things, not as they first appear; but as cold examination, and reflection prove them to be!
"Is it not the business of Poetry to do the direct contrary of this? Does it not seek for delusions? Does it not endeavour to prolong false colours?
"But while I have succeeded, who are the men, that have failed? Men, who taunted me in youth! men, with whom in quickness, in fancy, in the empty faculty, called eloquence, I could no more vie than an owl with an eagle! How often has Buckhurst bowed with humility beneath my sager knowledge! How often has Sydney trembled beneath my frown! How often has Raleigh turned defeated from my penetrating look!
"It is clear then, that Ralph Willoughby, whether there be any hidden meaning in his verses, or not, is not fit for my confidence! But whatever I may privately think, my sagacity is not so much decayed, as to be insensible to the motives of his accusers. To them I will not discover the conclusions, to which I have come. I have made one mistake by admitting this young man into the recesses of my Cabinet: I will not commit another by letting these plotters into the knowledge that, through their means, I have convicted myself of an error!
"Nor have I forgot, that I must not hastily make an enemy of Willoughby. These fancy-bitten persons, if they can not do good, can do much ill. They have the art of making great things out of small; and many a little hint, that may have been picked up in the course of my affairs, may be hatched into a treason."
When Lord Burleigh received the communications of these intriguers with doubt and apparent coldness, they hesitated how to proceed. But "he loved the treason, though he despised the traitors." He was unwilling to lose whatever information they could give him: and therefore by his very doubts contrived to extort more and more from them.
Ralph still sat at Burleigh's table; unsuspecting; sometimes pensive and silent; but irradiated with inward smiles, and glowing in the new creations of his fancy. His enemies watched with anxious pertinacity the movements of his thoughts. They could not infer that Burleigh had discovered to him any displeasure. Nor was Burleigh so forgetful of the mask he had worn through life; as to let them see what he was meditating.
Gersenda alone, at moments when age a little eased itself of the veil in the presence of filial affection, caught a glimpse of what was working in the old man's bosom. She saw that Ralph did not possess the place there, he had hitherto possessed. She was vain, curious, wavering, full of schemes. She had a sort of acuteness, that prided itself in seeing the turns and obliquities of the human character. She elicited with a great deal of cunning something of the nature of her father's new discoveries.
She resolved to try the ground of these suggestions with Ralph at their next interview. She entered upon the subject of Poetry with him, when they met at dinner the following day. He was reserved: she was more pressing: he became cold: she became angry.
The plotters overheard part of this conversation; and resolved to take advantage of it. A day's consultation enabled them to make the arrangement in a way highly satisfactory to themselves. They possessed the ear of a female in Gersenda's confidence. They instructed her in a train of insinuations with regard to the difference between the real and assumed character of Ralph. They taught her that he was a man of unequalled dissimulation; never professing what he really had in view; pursuing one object, while his inclination was bent upon another; and resolving to retrieve the desperation of his fortune, and family honours, by any sacrifice, or any deception.
They entered upon the poem; its character; and tendency. They said that, couched beneath the outward fable, might he discovered all his secret attachments, and genuine opinions. The whole was a deep allegory, designed to blacken all the family of the Cecils. Burleigh was veiled under one of the principal personages, as a man eminent in no quality but cunning: as selfish, false, avaricious, cruel, dishonest: as guided by narrow and short sighted politics; and having no end in view but private aggrandisement.
They went on to suggest that in every description of female beauty, his real taste appeared decidedly opposed to every sort of charm, or pretension, which characterized Gersenda: that the principle every where insinuated was the necessity of distinguishing real inclinations: that a man might marry for interest, and spend the money, so gained, on those whom he preferred: and that the State could never flourish, where men were raised to power, on the pretence of abilities, not of birth!
Gersenda, discouraged in her attachment by observing that clouds gathered round the head of Ralph, was prepared to entertain insinuations to his prejudice. Her suspicions were alive; her jealousy became violent and angry. She reproached Ralph: she piqued his pride: she roused his indignation. They quarreled, and vowed eternal disunion.
Gersenda, full of resentment, now resolved to confirm, and increase her father's suspicions. In another month, Ralph was dismissed from the service of Burleigh.
Ralph wrote to his father the intelligence of this dismissal. It came like the blow of death upon the old man, already broken by misfortunes. Ralph had been the anchor of his only remaining hopes. Through him, he flattered himself, that before he closed his eyes in the grave, he might have the blessing of seeing his family restored to their country, their, rank, and their possessions. All the consoling prospect now vanished in a moment. With it fled the impulse, that kept in motion the feeble remnant of life. He lingered a day or two in a state approaching to insensibility; and then died.
This event struck with bitterness and indignation upon the heart-strings of Ralph. It aggravated twofold his own disappointed views; and gave him a kind of wild despair, that dangerously augmented the native irregularities of his mind.
He wandered about, sometimes received by his old friends from a generous sense of the bad treatment he had experienced from Burleigh; and sometimes winning his way by the brilliance of his talents, and the eccentric flashes of a disordered intellect. Happening to be thrown into the company of the celebrated Robert Devereux Earl of Essex, that nobleman was caught by his manner, and a sort of occasional eloquence congenial to his own high spirit.
It will perhaps be deemed superfluous to give the character of this great and well known Peer. He had many weaknesses; and he rushed too rashly upon his own fate: but he had noble and attractive qualities, that reconcile us to all his faults. A sort of romantic spirit carried him forward to hope impossibilities: to despise caution: to overlook intrigue, baseness, and corruption; and to believe that grand intentions, and high and generous darings, would be crowned with success. Illustrious in descent; adorned with many splendid mental and moral endowments; lofty in titles and possessions; taken early into the Queen's peculiar favour; flattered from love, as well as from station; his sanguine temper was inebriated by the fumes of prosperity, by which his entrance into life was surrounded.
I have already given two Sonnets of Spenser as confirmatory of the characters of two of the historical personages of my story before introduced. I will here add a third.
TO THE MOST HONOURABLE AND EXCELLENT LORD, THE EARL OF ESSEX, GREAT MASTER OF THE HORSE TO HER HIGHNESS, AND KNIGHT OF THE MOST NOBLE ORDER OF THE GARTER, ETC.
Magnific Lord, whose virtues excellent
Do merit a most famous Poet's wit,
To be thy living praise's instrument;
Yet do not sdain to let thy name be writ
In this base poem, for thee far unfit:
Naught is thy praise disparaged thereby.
But when my Muse, whose feather, nothing flit,
Do yet but flag; and lowly learn to fly,
With bolder wing shall dare aloft to sty
To the last praises of this Fairy Queen;
Then shall it make more famous memory
Of thine heroic parts, such as they been.
Till then, vouchsafe thy noble countenance
To these first labours' needed furtherance!
Lord Essex had at once a contempt and hatred of the Burleigh party. Their birth; their moral, mental, and political qualities, were all odious to him. He was too generous to endeavour to extort from Ralph Willoughby a breach of confidence: but he listened eagerly to the import and colouring of Ralph's language; and attentively weighed his opinions upon many subjects, on which a peculiar opportunity had been given him to form them at the fountain-head.
Some of the advisers and dependents who surrounded Essex were not as much pleased with Ralph, as their Chief was. They fancied that he partook too much of their Lord's defects; and was therefore likely to encourage too much his openness, and imprudences. Anthony Bacon, the elder brother of the immortal Chancellor, was amongst these. This man, though nearly allied to Cecil, was Essex's confidential friend. He had acute abilities; he was industrious; intriguing; and sagacious. He played secretly between the factions; and was not willing that his patron should know too much of the Cecils. There was also an unsought energy and eloquence about Ralph, which eclipsed the acute but studied precision, and deep, but somewhat too far-fetched, deductions of Bacon: and which Bacon disliked, and dreaded the more, because they were too congenial to his Master's natural taste.
Ralph was in too great a tumult of feelings to determine with his usual sagacity the exact value of the new society, into which he was thrown. A desperate man of high sensibility takes every occasion to fly from reality: to count every moment of delusion, by which he can lull his fears and his regrets to sleep, as a gain; and to catch at every glimpse of light, that crosses the impenetrable blackness.
Instead of the cold, calculating system of Burleigh's House, which destroyed the charm of success itself, he found here in Lord Essex and such of his associates as were most congenial to him, a manner of thinking, that gilded defeat, and made victory doubly gratifying and glorious. It was a system rather for the heat of youth, and the bloom of life, than for the more chill contemplation of anxious age.
If Ralph loved poetry before, the flame of this divine spirit was doubly cherished in his bosom by the romantic manners of Essex's household. Here he found men of wit; men of learning; men of the world; voyagers; travellers; men of the Court; men of the Chase!
He could not believe, that the same characters could have been viewed in such opposite lights, as he now found they were. All the distinguished persons of the day were represented here in colours totally dissimilar to those, in which they had been described at the table or Burleigh. Sir Robert Cecil, Burleigh's younger son, with his associates, Northumberland, Raleigh, and Cobham, were covered with words either of foul calumny, or pitiful scorn.
Ralph could not always agree with these opinions; and he sometimes combated them ably, but candidly. With Cobham he was in some slight degree connected; and Raleigh's splendid abilities, and heroic spirit, had won his admiration. With the family of Northumberland his own had been politically leagued; and to that had owed their misfortunes and ruin.
Northumberland appears to have owed his consequence rather to his rank than to his personal abilities. This is the light, in which Spenser seems to have viewed him.
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, THE EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND.
The sacred Muses have made always claim
To be the nurses of Nobility,
And registers of everlasting fame,
To all, that arms profess, and chivalry:
Then by like right the noble progeny,
Which them succeed in fame and worth, are tied
T' embrace the service of sweet poetry,
By whose endeavours they are glorified;
And eke from all, by whom it is envied,
To patronize the author of their praise,
Which gives them life, that else would soon have died;
And crowns their ashes with immortal bays.
To thee therefore, right noble Lord, I send
This present of my pains, it to defend.
Sir Walter Raleigh is perhaps one of the most striking and interesting characters in British Biography. It is not easy to say any thing new of him. Many have doubted whether his ambition was sufficiently under the controul of nice principles of conscience. It is singular that a great part of his poetry has been buried and lost, among the Anonymous productions of his day. Some little pastoral pieces, for which he was celebrated, are still known to be his: and I have no doubt that to him belongs,
Go, Soul, the Body's Guest,
though called in question by Mr. Campbell.
What can have become of his poem of Cinthia? It seems certain that it was never published. — I am not confident that Raleigh could have been a great poet: he could have been at least a very ingenious one. From the whole structure and tone of Spenser's Sonnets, that Poet's testimony alone would have been sufficient to convince me of this.
TO THE RIGHT NOBLE AND VALOROUS KNIGHT, SIR WALTER RALEIGH, LORD WARDER OF THE STANNERIES, AND LIEUTENANT OF CORNWALL.
To thee, that art the Summer's nightingale,
Thy Sovereign Goddess's most dear delight,
Why do I send this rustic madrigal,
That may thy tuneful ear unseason quite?
Thou only fit this argument to write,
In whose high thoughts Pleasure hath built her bower;
And dainty Love learn'd sweetly to indite?
My rhymes I know unsavoury and sour,
To taste the streams, that like a golden shower,
Flow from thy fruitful head, of thy love's praise,
Fitter perhaps to thunder martial store,
When so thee list thy lofty Muse to raise:
Yet till that thou thy poem wilt make known,
Let thy fair Cynthia's praises be thus rudely shown!
It happened almost immediately after the defence which Ralph had made to the attacks on Northumberland and Raleigh, that he passed a fortnight in their company. Lord Cobham was Ralph's cousin. Tired of the smoke of London; weary of the uncertainty of his condition; perhaps disgusted by certain affronts or neglects put upon him by those of Essex's companions who were jealous of the growing favour, which the Earl shewed to him, he had wandered, scarcely knowing whither, in search of country air, and country quiet.
He found himself, in an hour or two, amid the furze and free breezes, of Blackheath; and looking back upon the Capital, exclaimed, as Cowley exclaimed half a century afterwards: "Proud City, I pity thee!" — His heart had long laboured with tumultuous passions: he was lost in deep musings; at length he became exhausted, and burst into tears.
He sat upon the trunk of a tree, which had been lately felled: it was on the edge of the public road, that ran from the lower parts of Kent. He was so engrossed by his own contemplations, that he started when a voice addressed him, from one, who approached him so near as to touch his shoulder before he saw him.
It was Lord Cobham, journeying from his seat at Cobbam-Hall, near Rochester, to the Capital. This nobleman, immediately recognizing him, addressed him with familiarity and kindness. "Ralph Willoughby" said he "what do you do here, and why so thoughtful?" — "I am tired the town," answered he; "and seek for country quiet!" — "Then go down to Cobbam" replied Lord C. "there are Northumberland, and Raleigh and a chearful party there; and I shall be back tomorrow morning!"
Ralph did not hesitate to accept the invitation. Before it was dark, he had already reached the Hall; and was courteously and gladly received by a Party who were delighted to see a new visitor, known to them by his talents, and great opportunities of information.
As Ralph had observed a vast difference in the style of conversation at the tables of Burleigh and Essex, he was not less impressed by the tone of that at Cobham, unlike either of them. It had nothing of the fervor of Essex: it had scarcely more of the cold, and deep, and profoundly balanced reserve of Burleigh. The alternations of brilliant remark, comprehensive knowledge, wit, sarcasm, raillery, pleasantry, of Raleigh, were admirable; and almost overcoming. Northumberland was a foil to him: he had great sense of the superiority of his birth, rank, and possessions, and was always struggling to take advantage of it; but the mind of Raleigh overawed him.
It was part of Raleigh's temper to be imperious. He saw acutely; and he had a temper, which made it difficult to suppress the mention of what he saw. He had too little mercy for the defects, or foibles of others; and yet perhaps was a self-deluder. His ambition was a scorching fire: almost too ardent to be pure.
When Cobham returned home the following day, Ralph Willoughby observed with some curiosity the manner, in which this nobleman was treated by his guest. Cobham was weak, talkative, busy, intriguing and ambitious. He was of a family in this Country, not only ancient; but for many ages noble. His father had held high employments in the State; and had proved himself well deserving of them. Raleigh always leagued himself with men of rank and connections: in an age, in which the roads to lofty preferment were scarce accessible to any other men, his proud pretensions saw the convenience, and even found the necessity of this.
Poor Cobham was a mere instrument, or play thing, in Raleigh's hands. It was painful to Ralph to be witness to the raillery, and ill-disguised contempt, with which Raleigh treated his noble relation. Cobham's excessive vanity filled his bosom with envy. There were two noble families. not very distant neigbours of his, to whom he discovered most jealous hatred; the Sackvilles of Knowle; and the Sydneys of Penshurst. The first was represented by a sublime Poet, of whom Raleigh himself felt unworthy and ungenerous rivalry. The illustrious genius had also been thus celebrated by Spenser.
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, THE LORD OF BUCKHURST, ONE OF HER MAJESTY'S PRIVY COUNCIL.
In vain I think, right honourable Lord,
By this rude rhyme to memorize thy name,
Whose learned Muse hath writ her own record
In golden verse, worthy immortal fame:
Thou much more fit, (were leisure to the same,)
Thy gracious Sovereign's praises to compile;
And her imperial Majesty to frame
In lofty numbers, and heroic style!
But sith thou mayst not so, give leave awhile
To baser wit his power therein to spend,
Whose gross defaults thy dainty pen may file,
And unadvised oversights amend;
But evermore vouchsafe it to maintain
Against vile Zoilus' backbitings vain.
Lord Buckburst, whom James I. afterwards created Earl of Dorset, in his early life appeared to the world as a great Poet, by his sublime Induction to the LEGEND of the Duke of Buckingham inserted in the Second Edition of the Collection of Poetical Legend called the Mirror for Magistrates, published at the commencement of Q. Elizabeth's reign. Being related to the Queen, on her mother's side, he was immediately on her accession, taken into favour at Court; and unfortunately for his future fame, forgot, in the Courtier, the higher occupations of the Muse. He does not appear to have mixed much with the factions of the time: and seems to have been more a man of prudence, at least in his latter days, than is usual with great poets. In his first youth, as far as regards money, he had been a spend-thrift. [Author's note: His old mansion at Buckhurst, in Sussex, was held for life, by his descendant, the late Lord George Germaine, Viscount Sackville, who died there: and is now the jointure house of the Duchess of Dorset.]
Raleigh paid an unwilling obeisance to the splendid talents, and lofty invention, of Buckhurst: but he complained of his courtly manners; and unadventurous habits. In truth, Buckhurst shunned Raleigh, as of another mould: but never ventured openly to offend him.
The rival House of Sydney had now lost its greatest ornament, Sir Philip, by a premature death. Ralph was anxious to hear Raleigh's opinion of this Phenomenon. — This severe estimator of the human character did not deny that Sir Philip was a luminary of extraordinary brilliance: but he said that his powers were not equal to his wishes, that he was somewhat of a precisian: and that he weakened his faculties by diffusion: and by an attempt at too universal excellence.
When Sir Philip's sister, the old Countess of Pembroke, was mentioned, Raleigh said that she was too stately, and cold; that her prejudices were too insufferably aristocratical, and that she had more learning, than genius.
Ralph answered mildly, that this was not Spenser's opinion; for that his Sonnet in her praise was one of the warmest of the whole set. Raleigh replied, that some allowance must be made for the flattery, and over-coloured phrases even of the sincerest poets; and that Spenser's gratitude to her Brother, who was his earliest patron, might justify peculiar fervor of language. The following is Spenser's encomium.
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, AND MOST VIRTUOUS LADY, THE COUNTESS OF PEMBROKE.
Remembrance of that most heroic Spirit,
The Heaven's pride, the glory of our days,
Which now triumpheth through immortal merit,
Of his brave virtues, crown'd with lasting bays
Of heavenly bliss, and everlasting praise;
Who first my Muse did lift out of the floor,
To sing his sweet delights in lowly lays,
Bids me, most Noble Lady, to adore
His goodly image, living evermore
In the divine resemblance of your face:
Which with your virtues ye embellish more,
And native beauty deck with heavenly grace.
For his, and for your own especial sake,
Vouchsafe, from him this token in good part to take!
If Ralph Willoughby could have otherwise forgotten the fame and splendor of Sir Philip Sydney, he had a daily memorial of it, while living in the House of Essex. This nobleman had married Sydney's widow; the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham: a lady who lived to obtain a third husband, (after having lost the first in battle; and the second, on a scaffold;) the Marquis of Clanrickard.
Sir Francis Walsingham was also a Kentish man; and lived in the neighbourhood of Cobham-Hall. — His character as a Statesman in this reign stands high. I know not that he has left any proofs of genius: his political abilities were good: but abilities and genius are very dissimilar qualities. He does not seem to have had the dislike, of poetry, which was entertained by Burleigh. On the contrary, Spenser's pen has recorded, that he was a "Mecenas" of his age. He must not be defrauded of the honour of this eulogy. Who would not sacrifice much to be memorialized in such immortal words? His name has long passed from the living: yet it shall hover over us, in brighter colours, than the living can enjoy!
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, SIR FRANCIS WALSINGHAM, KNIGHT, PRINCIPAL SECRETARY TO HER MAJESTY: AND OF HER HONOURABLE PRIVY COUNCIL.
That Mantuan Poet's incompared spirit,
Whose girland now is set in highest place,
Had not Mecenas, for his worthy merit,
It first advanced to great Augustus' grace,
Might long perhaps have lien in silence base,
Ne been so much admired of later age.
This lowly Muse, that learns like steps to trace,
Flies for like aid unto your patronage,
That are the great Mecenas of this age,
As well to all that civil arts profess,
As those, that are inspired with martial rage;
And craves protection of her feebleness:
Which if ye yield, perhaps ye may her raise
In bigger tones to sound your living praise.
It was on the fifth day after Ralph's arrival at Cobham that on leaving his chamber in the morning, he perceived all the servants of the mansion in a bustle. More than ordinary preparations were making for the entertainment of the day. He found that the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, was expected to dinner, Ralph was well acquainted with the character of this old man, whose pride and vanity were excessive; and who delighted in pomp. Cobham was willing to treat him in his own way; and light and foolish as he was himself, to, play with the other's foibles.
His arrival was attended by his accustomed pageantry: and he loaded the company, according to their rank, with a profusion of compliments. To the Earl of Northumberland, above all, he was entire devotion. The mode, in which he addressed Raleigh was sufficiently ridiculous to bye-standers of acute observation. He considered Raleigh as a new man and an upstart; — but in spite of the unbounded insolence of a puny mind, inebriated with prosperity and honours, yet always endeavouring to disguise it under the thin veil of a fulsome civility, he trembled, and sunk before the daring eye, and undaunted courage of Raleigh.
His person had been very handsome; his heroism had been displayed in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. These are the topics on which Spenser judiciously seized, as the foundation of his panegyric.
TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE, THE LORD CH. HOWARD HIGH ADMIRAL OF ENGLAND, KNIGHT OF THE NOBLE ORDER OF GARTER, AND ONE OF HER MAJESTY'S PRIVY COUNCIL, ETC.
And ye, brave Lord, whose goodly personage,
And noble deeds, each other garnishing,
Make you ensample to the present age
Of th' old heroes, whose famous offspring
The antique poets wont so much to sing,
In this same pageant have a worthy place;
Sith those same Castles of Castilian King;
That vainly threatened Kingdoms to displace,
Like flying doves, ye did before you chase:
And that proud People, woxen insolent
Through many victories, did first deface;
Thy praise's everlasting monument
Is in this verse engraven semblably;
That it may live to all posterity.
Raleigh had been more than once under his command; but considered him, as a mere feather, put for shew at the head of the expeditions.
The Lord Admiral quitted Cobham the next morning: and Ralph was now left to Raleigh's maneuvres.
Raleigh had a strong desire to make use of Ralph for a double purpose. He thought he could sift out of him some of the secrets both of the Houses of Burleigh, and Essex. He mistook the nature as well of Ralph's understanding, as of his disposition. He affected to take Ralph into his confidence; and to display to him some of the treasures of his mind.
He found in this youthful pupil an extent of profound observation, at which he was astonished. Never off his guard, yet sometimes breaking into bursts of copious eloquence, he was equal to the Master that would probe him; because he had tasked his abilities to meet the occasion, of which he fully perceived the danger.
The effect upon Raleigh's opinions was the reverse of what he had expected. He could discover nothing from the Penetralia of the Statesmen, whose secrets he desired to know, but what was wise, honourable, and generous.
On the other hand, Ralph felt his veneration for Raleigh a little diminished. He said to himself, "there is sometimes a finesse in what this man says, that clouds its force, and renders its wisdom doubtful. Truth, and virtue, and simplicity are the only sources of genuine eloquence; and can alone bring with them any lasting persuasion, or conviction. The brilliance of distorted ingenuity soon ceases to please: and in a little time disgusts. Raleigh has too exclusive a confidence in himself: he would monopolize all favour; and is too apt to think no other man capable of properly governing the State. I do not love Burleigh: I never could love him: I have now, alas, too, much reason to hate him! — But I am not insensible to his numerous statesman-like qualities. To Essex Raleigh is still less excusable in his bitterness: nor does he duly estimate the talents, or the heart of this amiable, but imprudent nobleman."
Raleigh communicated to Ralph political secrets, real or pretended, to which Ralph's understanding and intelligence were little inclined to give full credit. The most surprising thing to him was Raleigh's pretension to the confidence of Sir Robert Cecil, Burleigh's favourite son. He did not dare tell Raleigh that he was a dupe; nor could he altogether bring himself to think that he was in fact so. But if Raleigh was sincere and accurate in his relations, he could not be otherwise. Sometimes, the most cunning men overreach themselves; and are the victims of those, whom they would deceive.
At this time there were numerous, busy and conflicting intrigues going on with the Scotch Monarch. Raleigh thought that he had played his part so well as to be secure of the King's favour, when he should ascend the British throne. Ralph smiled, from a knowledge that the same confidence was entertained by the opposite parties of Burleigh, and of Essex.
It was one of Raleigh's purposes to persuade Ralph to undertake a secret commission to the Scotch Court. This proposal was received by him with coldness and dislike. He had been too much behind the curtain; and he knew too well the difficulty of such a task. He had had peculiar opportunities of becoming acquainted with the character of King James. He had discovered that this Prince was fickle, pusillanimous, deceitful; and that from a pedantic turn of intellect he was ignorant how to deal with mankind; and was always likely to sacrifice those, who had any transactions with him.
He expressed these opinions cautiously to Raleigh, who smiled with a sort of gentle and suppressed contempt at his suspicions; as if sure of his own arrangements; and exulting in his prospective wisdom. "Such" said Ralph to himself, is human blindness in the most highly gifted!"
Sir Robert Cecil, who knew all that was going forward wherever active spirits were met together, had intelligence of Ralph's arrival at Cobham, before he had been there twenty four hours. He was not well pleased at this rencontre with Raleigh, and had a spy in Cobham's house, who conveyed to him, with a great deal of misconstruction, several of the conversations, which had passed between these two.
Cecil had kept up some outward appearance of friendship with Ralph, notwithstanding the rupture with his father. He was well assured of Ralph's rectitude of principles: but he could not believe him a match for the searching capacity, and long and varied experience of Raleigh. He felt that Ralph could communicate many things, of which the discovery to Raleigh might be to ruin to himself.
Ralph's mind was now in a tumult, from the variety of new observations, had forced themselves upon him. Active life seemed to be a chaos of conflicting elements. He felt a desire for a short solitude, that he might have an opportunity of digesting his remarks. He quitted Cobham; and retired to a cottage in Whichwood Forest with which he had become acquainted in one of his excursions with Lord Essex.
The first escape from the disgust or restraint of artificial society, into free air, and silence, and the beautiful scenes of Nature, is exultation, and unmingled delight. Then come regret at time lost; anger at ambitious desires at once unvirtuous and painful; and vows never again to wander beyond the paths of obscure content. The mists began to disperse from the objects of the mind, which had obtruded themselves with such clouded force upon his imagination. "Grandeur," said he, "is not the path, of virtue. Success and a pure conscience are incompatible. It is intrigue, and plot that succeeds: and he, who unites the most audacity with the deepest design wins the game. From Burleigh to Essex; from Essex to Raleigh, it is all a bed of thorns. Restless and incessant caution; indignant resentment; scornful pretentions; and overweening confidence!
"It seems to me madness in him who can command a competence, to embark on these troubled oceans. It is for our posterity alone, that we feel the stimulus of emerging from obscurity. If I could resolve to lead a single life, I should have no hesitation to restrain myself for the remainder of my days to a literary solitude. I could create a Paradise for myself; and the wealth of the mind should outshine that of courts and palaces. But, oh, the contradiction of human wishes! The soft eyes of this cottage-girl, the daughter of my host, tell me, that singleness is not the life for me! Fair Rosalinde; why lookest thou so archly and so sweetly upon one, who would close his eye and his heart against tender impressions! Thy cunning sees that I admire thy blooming face; and those young hopes, which have yet received no chill!—"
He spent a fornight in rambling about the wildest paths of the forest. He formed a thousand romantic schemes of a life to be dedicated to study, and composition. He endevoured to forget the rank of his ancestors; and the habits of activity and peril, in which they had passed their days.
At this time Sir Henry Wotton wrote to him a letter from Essex-House, expressed in dark and enigmatical terms, hinting at the dangerous course of conduct, which the Earl was pursuing: and intimating the rashness, with which he involved his partisans in the chance of ruin. Ralph lamented, but was not surprised at this intelligence. He congratulated himself on his distance from this scene of action; and on the comparative quiet and safety he was now enjoying.
A long walk occupied by a profound and painful meditation on the imprudences and probable fate of Essex, whom with all his errors and excesses he loved and admired, had so overcome him, that when he returned to his humble apartment in the cottage, he fell asleep. The vision of Essex appeared to him. He looked pale as death: his neck was open; and stained with blood: he shook his disheveled locks; and casting on him a reproachful glance, cried: "Ralph Willoughby! why desert me in my troubles? It becomes not a generous mind to fly from the field of danger. Skulk not in the woods, when the plain of battle is open to thy heroic spirit!" A blast shrieked across the forest; the vision fled; and Ralph awoke!—
He opened his eyes: a lovely figure stood by his side: a gentle voice enquired, if he was ill. — It was Rosalinde. "Why ill, Rosalinde!" asked he. "O Sir!" she answered; "you sighed and muttered so loud, that we heard it in the next apartment! and when I entered the room, you shook so, and the dew drops sat so full upon your forehead, that you seemed to be in the height of a fever!" "It was only a dream, Rosalinde, that disturbed me!" replied Ralph. — "But need we not regard dreams, Sir?" exclaimed Rosalinde. "They are the mere gambols of the Fancy, Rosalinde!" he cried: "but sometimes they are grave, and dreadful gambols!" — "They are only gambols then?" she said: "Oh, how I rejoice, that they are only gambols: for I sometimes dream such melancholy things?" — "Why, what dream you, Rosalinde?" — "Oh, I dreamed last night, that some great Lord had persuaded you to go with him upon a hazardous adventure; and that you was taken prisoner; thrown into a dungeon; condemned to death; and lost your head upon a block!" — "And would you have grieved for that, Rosalinde?" — She blushed; and dropped a tear. Ralph kissed it from her cheek.
Ralph was not superstitious; but this dream made a strong impression upon him. He was not satisfied, that it was generous or honourable to keep entirely aloof, if there was any chance that his advice, or other aid, could be of the least use to Essex. But Wotton's Letter left him under great difficulty how to solve many of its hints.
Sir Henry Wotton was a man of very acute abilities; erudition; considerable genius; and many excellent moral qualities. The late admirably-informed Thomas Warton has pronounced him a mixed character. It seems as if he wanted, firmness, magnanimity, and directness of conduct. This sometimes involved him in the appearance, and perhaps the reality, of finesse, and duplicity. There is in many of his writings something of a turn allied to this: a cloudiness, and pedantry of thought, and phrase, of which the shackles are intolerable to a bold genius. Quaintness of language to a mind of native force is as ill suited and injurious as an enamel of paint put to cover the bloom of nature. But in the contemplations of the closet Wotton had a pure and exalted mind. Old Isaac Walton has written his life with such admirable naivete, and in colours so very interesting, that few characters are remembered with more fondness than that of this celebrated Statesman. The Wottons were an ancient, and considerable Kentish family, whose mansion was at Boughton-Malherb a few miles from Maidstone. Sir Henry died, an old man, in the reign of Charles I. Provost of Eton College, where he had been educated. Walton has recorded a most eloquent passage expressive of his feelings on revisiting this scene of the sports of his boyhood: and which in a most striking manner anticipates the strain and course of thought of Gray's beautiful "Ode on the Prospect of Eton College." I do not mean that Gray borrowed from it: it was the coincidence of truth and nature. Sir Henry wrote elegant poetry, full of touching sentiment; and marked by terse and graceful, expression. His lines on his favourite Patroness, the unfortunate Queen of Bohemia, daughter of K. James I. beginning:
Ye meaner Beauties of the Night,
have lost nothing of their exquisite and tender polish by the lapse of time.
Ralph knew Wotton's character well: he had penetrated into his foibles; he lamented his defects; he admired his endowments, and virtues. He was sure that the intelligence conveyed to him imported some great evil; he could not unravel exactly what.