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 great grace hath won?Young years for endless years, and hope unsure,Of fortune’s gifts, for wealth that still shall dure,Oh, happy race, with so great praises run!
Like many other writers of his century, Ralegh uses his poetry to chastise the court for its hypocrisy, its vice, and its folly. Few men, indeed, suffered more from the false appearances of monarchs and their ministers. The brief stanzas of “The Lie” move over the whole spectrum of society:
Say to the court it glows,And shines like rotten wood; Say to the church, it...
(The entire section is 1,946 words.)