Raleigh, Walter

  Poetry & Prose    Books / People

One of the most colorful and politically powerful members of the court of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) has come to personify the Elizabethan era and some say the English Renaissance too.

| 1554, Hayes Barton, Devonshire.
| 29th October, 1618, London.

Born at Hayes Barton, Devonshire, most likely in 1554, Raleigh came from a prominent family long associated with seafaring. In his mid-teens, Raleigh interrupted his education to fight with Huguenot forces in France. Upon his return to England in 1572, he attended Oxford University for two years and left, without earning a degree, to study law in London. One of the first examples of his poetry appeared in 1576 as the preface to George Gascoigne’s satire The Steele Glas. Two years later, Raleigh and his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed to North America in an unsuccessful attempt to find the Northwest Passage. In 1580, he took part in the English suppression of Ireland, earning a reputation as a war hero primarily for leading a massacre of unarmed Spanish and Italian troops. Upon his return to England, he was summoned by Queen Elizabeth to serve as an advisor on Irish affairs.

Queen Elizabeth was taken with Raleigh’s personal charm, and he soon became one of her court favorites. In addition to lucrative royal commissions and grants, he was knighted in 1585, and in 1587, he was named captain of the Queen’s personal guard. The majority of Raleigh’s poetry was written during this period, much of it designed to flatter Elizabeth and secure her royal favor. He was able to use that influence to ensure the Queen’s favorable reception of his friend Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590). Raleigh also used his influence to gain the Queen’s support for his plan to establish the first English colony in North America, on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. Established in 1587, the colony was soon abandoned, and its inhabitants vanished without a trace, presumed to have been massacred by members of Chief Powhatan’s tribe.

Dwell on his works awhile, they are profound and powerful. He was much more than a swashbuckling pirate with a crush on the virgin qween.

Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enemy to rest,
An envious boy, from whom all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possessed,
A way of error, a temple full of treason,
In all effects contrary unto reason.

A poisoned serpent covered all with flowers,
Mother of sighs, and murderer of repose,
A sea of sorrows whence are drawn such showers
As moisture lend to every grief that grows;
A school of guile, a net of deep deceit,
A gilded hook that holds a poisoned bait.

A fortress foiled, which reason did defend,
A siren song, a fever of the mind,
A maze wherein affection finds no end,
A raging cloud that runs before the wind,
A substance like the shadow of the sun,
A goal of grief for which the wisest run.

A quenchless fire, a nurse of trembling fear,
A path that leads to peril and mishap,
A true retreat of sorrow and despair,
An idle boy that sleeps in pleasure’s lap,
A deep mistrust of that which certain seems,
A hope of that which reason doubtful deems.

Sith then thy trains my younger years betrayed,
And for my faith ingratitude I find;
And sith repentance hath my wrongs bewrayed,
Whose course was ever contrary to kind:
False love, desire, and beauty frail, adieu.
Dead is the root whence all these fancies grew.

— Sir Walter Ralegh

And this (on life & loss):

Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us nought but age and dust;
Which in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
And from which grave, and earth, and dust,
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.

— Sir Walter Ralegh

In 1592, Elizabeth discovered that Raleigh had secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, a member of the royal court, sometime during the late 1580s. Furious over what she believed to be their betrayal, Elizabeth ordered the couple imprisoned in separate cells in the Tower of London. Although Ralegh was released within months, he was stripped of many of his privileges and exiled from the court. In February of 1595, Ralegh sailed to the Orinoco River in Guiana (now Venezuela) in search of gold. He regained Elizabeth’s favor in 1597 by taking part in a daring raid on the Spanish at Cadiz. He was reappointed captain of the Queen’s Guard, named governor of the Isle of Jersey, and in 1601, he put down a rebellion led by his longtime rival, the earl of Essex.

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, disliked and mistrusted Raleigh, and brought charges of treason against him in November, 1603. Convicted and sentenced to death, Raleigh was again imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he spent the next 13 years. During this time, he wrote The History of the World, considered a literary, if not a historical, masterpiece. Raleigh eventually convinced James to release him to lead an expedition to find gold and silver in South America. Spain had become rich and powerful from the gold it had taken from the New World, and with England’s treasury nearly depleted, James reluctantly agreed to back the plan. As a result of his earlier voyage to the Orinoco River, Raleigh knew that there was little chance that gold would be found there; he instead planned to capture Spanish ships carrying gold back to Spain. Although James had ordered Raleigh not to tempt war with Spain, Raleigh believed that if he could pirate enough gold, the king would overlook his disobedience. Unfortunately, the expedition was a disaster. Raleigh encountered and attacked Spanish forces near Santo Tomé, and in the ensuing battle, his eldest son was killed. Upon his return to England, he was again imprisoned and his order of execution reinstated. He was beheaded outside the Palace of Westminster on October 29, 1618.


Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh
(unknown artist)
inscribed right: Aetatis suae 34 An(no) 1588 (“In the year 1588 of his age 34”) and left: with his motto Amor et Virtute (“By Love and Virtue”). National Portrait Gallery, London

The poem is written in 13 stanzas in an ABABCC rhyme scheme. It begins with an energetic determination to expose the truth, especially in the socially elite, although he knows his doing so will not be well received.

Go, Soul, the body’s guest,
Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:

— Sir Walter Ralegh

From there the poem moves quickly through a variety of scenes and situations of falsehood and corruption, all of which Raleigh condemns. The second and third stanzas accuse the court of being arrogant and yet wholly rotten, the church of being inactive and apathetic despite its teachings, and those in government of favoritism and greed, respecting only those in large numbers.




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