Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Sir Walter Ralegh, like so many other Renaissance courtiers, considered the writing of poetry one of the polite arts, to be practiced in one’s leisure moments for the pleasure of friends. In his busy political, military, and adventuring career, his poetic efforts apparently carried little weight, and he never seems to have encouraged their publication, although he was much interested in presenting to the public his History of the World (1614) and his treatises on his expeditions to the new world. As a result of this carelessness, on his part and on the part of publishers who did publish his work and who sometimes published work that was not his under his name, over the years countless verses have been attributed to him, and no one can be sure how many of them he actually wrote. The small body of work that is unquestionably his, however, shows him to be a poet of high ability.
Ralegh was perhaps second only to Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney as poets in the court of Elizabeth I. He shunned the opulence of the typical poetry of his time for a sparse, dignified style that has many echoes of his predecessors, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. The melancholy quality that pervades much of Ralegh’s work is close to that of almost all of Wyatt’s poems and to the last lyrics of Surrey, written while he was in the Tower awaiting trial and execution. Ralegh himself spent more than ten years in the Tower, hoping against hope for release, and a sense of the constant closeness of death runs through his later work. Life is precarious, “beauty, fleeting,” and death near at hand for all. Ralegh’s answer to Christopher Marlowe’s famous pastoral lyric “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” (1600) is filled with this sense of the transience of all things:
Time drives the flocks from field to fold,When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,And Philomel becometh dumb;The rest complains of cares to come.The flowers do fade, and wanton fieldsTo wayward winter reckoning yields;A honey tongue, a heart of gall,Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.
Ralegh protests against the actions of time in another lyric, “Nature that washt her hands in milke,” in which he describes the creation of the perfect woman by Nature, at the request of Love. This paragon no sooner exists than Time, “being made of steel and rust,/ Turns snow, and silk and milk to dust.” The final stanza is the eternal human lament:
Oh, cruel time! Which takes in trustOur youth, our joys and all we have,And pays us but with age and dust,Who in the dark and silent graveWhen we have wandered all our waysShuts up the story of our days.
While Wyatt’s laments are most often those of the Petrarchan lover, scorned by the lady to whom he offers devotion, Ralegh’s melancholy seems to derive from a more general vision of the human condition. Even in those sonnets in which he takes the conventional stance of the rejected lover, he seems conscious of a larger world. One of these concludes, “And at my gate despair shall linger still,/ To let in death when love and fortune will.”
Ralegh’s sense of the destructive powers of time has particular force in his elegy on Sir Philip Sidney, an excellent poem in which the writer pays tribute to a fellow courtier-soldier-poet. There is in the “Epitaph” a touch of envy of Sidney, who died with an unblemished reputation and was freed from the threats of time and evil men:
What hath he lost, that such...
(The entire section is 1646 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bates, Catherine. Masculinity, Gender, and Identity in the English Renaissance Lyric. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Analyzes the depiction of masculine identity in works by Ralegh and other English Renaissance poets. Argues that these poets create alternative models of masculinity, often portraying men as broken and abject instead of as powerful and in control.
Hammond, Gerald, ed. Introduction to Selected Writings, by Sir Walter Ralegh. Manchester, England: Carcanet, 1984. Hammond’s introduction to this collection gives substantial attention to Ralegh’s poetry, addressing its themes and styles as well as the influence of others on Ralegh’s work.
May, Steven W. The Elizabethan Courtier Poets: The Poems and Their Contexts. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991. Includes a discussion of Ralegh’s career. Examines Ralegh’s genres and looks closely at the relationship between Ralegh’s poetry and his position as courtier to Elizabeth I
_______. Sir Walter Ralegh. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Provides a solid general introduction to the life and the major works of the writer.
Oram, William A. “Raleigh, the Queen, and Elizabethan Court Poetry.” In Early Modern English Poetry: A Critical Companion, edited by Patrick Cheney, Andrew Hadfield, and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. An analysis of Ralegh’s poetry in the context of his relationship with Elizabeth I and the court politics of his day.
Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh. London: Allen Lane, 2002. Exhaustive biography written by a direct descendant of Ralegh. Draws from Ralegh’s poems and prose to recount his life.
Ure, Peter. “The Poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh.” In Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: Critical Essays, edited by J. C. Maxwell. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1974. Ure examines Ralegh’s friendship with Edmund Spenser and its effects on Ralegh’s poetry. Notes particularly the dark quality of Ralegh’s writing from the Jacobean period.