Before his execution on the 29th of October 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh enjoyed one last pipe of tobacco. Then, before laying his head upon the block, he engaged in a polite disputation with his executioner. According to William Tyler Olcott in his 1914 compendium Sun Lore of All Ages, “There was a discussion as to the way he should face, some saying he should face the east. Raleigh then remarked: ‘So the heart be straight it is no matter which way the head lieth.’”
It’s an anecdote that presents the explorer as calm, courageous, scholarly. One imagines Raleigh staring toward the direction of golden sunset, toward that mythic city of El Dorado, which he’d repeatedly failed to find in the South American jungles. There’s a certain poetry in his response as well; in addition to his reputation as courtier, explorer, adventurer, and war criminal, he’s also one of our greatest poets.
Raleigh’s artistic stock has waxed and waned, even if his lean, muscular, and plain style appealed to a certain imperial Victorianism. Even today, any comprehensive period anthology will include Raleigh’s most notable lyrics, especially his 1592 “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” a response to Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral “The Passionate Shepherd to his Lover.” The pair were so popular that the biographer Izaak Walton would record some half-century after the poems’ composition that two milk maids would repeat the conjoined lyrics back and forth from memory, having “cast away all care, and sung like a nightingale … the ditty fitted for it.”
It’s hard to categorize “verse for milk maids.” Literary historian Michael Schmidt describes Raleigh’s “preferences for plain style and brusque, masculine utterance.” Schmidt sees Raleigh as a nascent metaphysical poet, not unconvincingly arguing that his verse “rich in verbal texture and in metaphor extended” implies that Raleigh is most properly classified alongside John Donne and George Herbert.
C.S. Lewis noted Raleigh’s propensity for Anglo-Saxon affectations, his rejection of the humanistic optimisms of the 16th century, and as such he classified the poet as an anti-Petrarchan, as holding a vehemently English, almost anti-Renaissance position. Raleigh rejected the flowers of rhetoric, save for those simple (but not simplistic) tropes of the plain style: contrast, antithesis, anaphora, alliteration, parallelism, and the monosyllable. Lewis claimed that such opposition merited Raleigh’s inclusion among the “drab poets,” such as John Davies or Michael Drayton. Despite Raleigh’s continued anthologizing, his reputation as a relatively minor poet endures.
By contrast, the idiosyncratic American poet-critic Yvor Winters saw great value in Raleigh’s rejection of Petrarchism. The so-called “Winter’s Canon” endures as a counterfactual literary history, valorizing poets whom he saw as unfairly marginalized. Winters presented a shadow canon existing tandem Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so on. A teacher of poets including Philip Levine, Donald Hall, and Robert Pinsky, Winters exacted a crucial, if obscured, role in what we talk about when we talk about Elizabethan verse.
For Winters, a rejection of the excesses of Romanticism necessitated a recovery of plain style poets who’d long been passed over, a coterie of writers for whom verse was defined with the almost Puritanical parsimony of simply being “the art of saying something about something in verse,” where the poem is nothing more complicated than a “statement in words about a human experience.” In The New Criterion, David Yezzi explains that Winters’s “greatest single essay” was a piece for Poetry magazine were Winters argued that the Elizabethan era was “the most versatile in the language … unequaled, the peak from which he perceived a long decline.”
According to Yezzi, Winters’s “critique of the poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries flouts convention,” especially in his reclamation of plain style in opposition to the intricate beauties of Petrarchism. Critiquing Lewis’s language surrounding the “Drab Poets,” Winters writes that the former had blamed “modern scholars for approaching the period with Romantic prejudices” while conceiving of the “entire poetry of the period in terms of a Romantic prejudice.” Winters’ condemnation of Lewis, and by proxy the academic establishment, was withering; the problem with Lewis is that “he likes the pretty so profoundly that he overlooks the serious.”
In arguing that plain style was superior to the “sugared” affectations of those inheritors of Petrarchism (including Shakespeare), Winters rejected “rhetoric for its own sake” and identified an enduring strain of minimalism which has defined much of subsequent canonical literature, particular American and Modernist writing. For a fine example of Raleigh’s proficiency in the plain style, take the prefatory sonnet for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an epic dedicated to Raleigh, who was Spenser’s commanding officer during the atrocity at Smerwick during the Second Desmond Rebellion. Raleigh’s sonnet is a brief in favor of both Spenser’s mythmaking, as well as of the plain style:
Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay,
Within that temple where the vestal flame
Was wont to burn; and, passing by that way,
To see that buried dust of living fame,
Whose tomb fair Love, and fairer Virtue kept:
All suddenly I saw the Fairy Queen;
At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept,
And, from thenceforth, those Graces were not seen:
For they this queen attended; in whose stead
Oblivion laid him down on Laura’s hearse:
Hereat the hardest stones were seen to bleed,
And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did pierce:
Where Homer’s spright did tremble all for grief,
And cursed the access of that celestial thief!
Raleigh enacts a sort of translatio studii et imperii, whereby the cultural significance of the Italian Renaissance will pass onto Britain as the site of future greatness.
Spenser’s epic simultaneously built upon and rejected Italian models, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso or Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Both the epic itself and Raleigh’s sonnet make an argument for nascent English literature, in opposition to models then in vogue. Raleigh imagines the burial place of Petrarch’s unrequited lover for whom Il Canzoniere drew its inspiration; the explorer sees “the grave where Laura lay,” and though hers is of a “living fame,” her mortal remains are so much “buried dust.” The metaphorical significance in Raleigh’s nationalist argument is obvious.
Raleigh’s reveries are interrupted by the appearance of Spenser’s Fairy Queen, for even whom “At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept.” The graces which inspired Petrarch have left, just as surely as the spirit of history moves in a westerly direction, where even “Homer’s spright did tremble all for grief, / And cursed the access of that celestial thief!” There is something apocalyptic in the sonnet, where “hardest stones were seen to bleed / And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did piece”; it conjures up nothing less than the raptures of Judgment Day itself, of the dead arising after the crucifixion, and as such it connects the project of English literary greatness to a millennial project. The sonnet is crafted with a certain parsimonious, minimalist elegance. An argument could be made that poems are best evaluated by how visceral their first lines are; as such, the memorable “Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay” would place Raleigh within the caliber of Donne or Emily Dickinson. His initial line is perfectly wrought.
His range was impressive, more impressive than has sometimes been claimed. Consider his unfinished “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia,” probably written while he was first imprisoned, possibly reconstituted by him from memory, and only rediscovered in 1860 among the papers of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser. At an intended 15,000 lines, Schmidt describes it as “his longest and most ambitious poem,” best understood as “essentially autobiographical epic romance.” Schmidt explains that Raleigh has “moved beyond the aphoristic style, pithy and spare” and that the piece “traces English poetry’s transition from plain to aureate style,” arguing that the poem “can be read as ‘modernist’ avant la lettre.”
Written from the perspective of the Ocean addressing the Moon, the symbolism involves a rather obvious declaration from the seafaring Raleigh to the Queen. These poems must be read as part of the project of bolstering British literary and imperial greatness; they should, of course, be understood as part of that hagiographical scripture for Elizabeth’s Cult of Gloriana. It would be apt, though, to also read something like “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia” as a primogeniture of “American” literature, both because of who wrote it and because of its thematic concerns.
Raleigh writes, with America in mind, that “To see new world for gold, for Praise, for glory, / To try desire, to try love sever’d far, / When I was gone, she sent his memory, / More strong than were ten thousand ships of war. / To call me back.” If there was any constant in Raleigh’s mind it was this “new world of gold,” this constructed El Dorado to which he would ever sail, and that image of a land overflowing with material opportunity that has been an American myth since the beginning.
Scholar William Spengemann explains that the “writings we call Early American Literature enact and document” that discovery itself, “standing as they do at the crucial point where the geographical history of English, previously confined to a corner of Europe, first crosses the eastern shoreline of the New World.” In Raleigh’s poetry one sees intimations for elements of American literature from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway, arguably the genesis of a tradition where appropriately enough Raleigh is himself the first “American” writer. For Spengemann, Raleigh’s writings mark the “beginning of a long process of geographical expansion, demographic redistribution, and linguistic change,” and as such one could classify “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia” as a type of “American” epic.
Yet his most arresting poetry lay elsewhere. Raleigh’s considerations of mortality rank him alongside Donne as one of the most perceptive in a particularly melancholic era. Schmidt describes “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrim,” supposedly written on the eve of execution, as “the most amazing confrontation with death in English verse.” The explorer writes:
And this is my eternal plea
To him that made heaven, earth, and sea:
Seeing my flesh must die so soon,
And want a head to dine next noon,
Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,
Set on my soul an everlasting head.
Then am I ready, like a lamer fit,
To tread those blest paths which before I writ.
His unadorned style conveys homespun piety, where God is simply addressed as He that “made heaven, earth, and sea” (note the descent downward, and the end stop with that geographic feature that made Raleigh’s name). Part of what’s so remarkable is the thought of Raleigh envisioning the promise of “an everlasting head” the evening before he was to lose his; the Christian hope that his “soul, like a white palmer, / Travels to the land of heaven.” It’s like a Protestant version of jisei, the Japanese death poems written by Zen monks prior to their passing.
Far from Raleigh’s reputation for impiety, the libertine quaffing drams at the Mermaid Tavern, or the supposed member alongside Marlowe of an infernal “School of Night,” his death poem reconciled him to orthodoxy. In fairness, there is also that other Raleigh, the radically skeptical one; the poet who described “Our mothers’ wombs the tiring house be / Where we are dressed for this short comedy”; the Raleigh who condemns “Heaven the judicious spectator is / That sits and marks still who doeth act amiss”; the dour cynic who preaches that “Our graves that hide us from the searching sun / Are like drawn curtain when the play is done.” This is the Raleigh who in his History of the World would describe God as “the author of all our tragedies,” for whom “there is no other account to be made of this ridiculous world than to resolve that the change of fortune on the great theater is but as the change of garments.”
His contention is as old as Ecclesiastes and as recent as existentialism. Raleigh arguably expresses a conventional contemptus mundi pose in keeping with the melancholia of the age which produced Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, yet there is still something arrestingly modern about it. Even more so a translation of Catullus: “The sun may set and rise, / But we contrariwise / Sleep after our short light / One everlasting night.” No intimations of immortality, nor succor of God; understandable that some would impugn Raleigh with the charge of “atheist,” even as he speaks through the deniable persona of a long-dead Roman.
I’ve no idea to Raleigh’s personal atheism; the record is contradictory, and besides, overly autobiographical readings of literature are avoided for a reason. I suspect, like all of us, he tended to be a little bit of both, to varying degrees, depending on circumstance, despite Schmidt’s contention that “He speaks for and as himself.” Hard not to want to read Raleigh that way, this ever evocative, ever vital, ever romantic, ever troubling man. An innate attractiveness in this poetic explorer whom Schmidt reminds us had to live by “talent, wit, chicanery, and strength,” who “writes not out of habit but necessity.”
If I can conjecture about Raleigh’s spiritual orientation, however, I wonder if not his variable agnosticism was born out of a desire not to necessarily see a Paradise in heaven, but to find one on earth. America, after all, was that which he pursued unto the very gates of mortality, the failed expedition to an El Dorado cause of his final misfortune, for it was that which spent his life. In “Farewell to Court” he writes of a “country strange without companion,” using prescient language eerily prefiguring his circumstances in 1617, stranded on Trinidad after seeing his son killed, and awaiting transfer back to London to be punished for violating the terms of his agreement with the King.
William Carlos Williams, in his 1940 response to Raleigh’s response to Marlowe, writes that “We cannot go to the country / for the country will bring us / no peace.” Williams used the word “country” in the same pastoral sense as the original pair, but we’d be apt to think of it in the sense of the Americas as well, for America certainly brought Raleigh no peace, even as he prayed that the discovery of some temporal Eden would earn him respite from the punishment to which he’d been condemned. The poet was no atheist when it came to belief in America, though that god had ultimately betrayed him, as he placed his head upon the block towards the westerly direction of paradise, a country from which no explorer, not even Raleigh, may return.
Image: Wikimedia Commons [portrait by Nicholas Hilliard]