Sir Walter Ralegh Analysis
If readers take him at his face value (or at the value of one of his many faces), Sir Walter Ralegh epitomized, accepted, and chose to live out the daring expansiveness and buoyancy of the Elizabethan court. He conceived of his own life as a poem, as a flamboyant epic gesture, and his poems were the manifestations of his public role and his political ambitions. However disguised in the garment of Petrarchan plaint, mournful song, lament for lost love, carpe diem or ubi sunt motif, Ralegh’s poems are the articulation of the ruthless and sometimes blatant struggle for power that created and held together the court of Elizabeth. “Then must I needes advaunce my self by skyll,/ And lyve to serve, in hope of your goodwyll” he (possibly) wrote—and advancing himself with skill meant using the court as an arena of self-assertion, or (in another of themetaphors that disseminate contradictions throughout his work) as a new world to be conquered.
Ralegh’s career as a poet and a courtier (the two are almost inseparable, literary and social text repeatedly writing and rewriting each other throughout his life) should not be simply seen as the daring, willful assertion of the gentleman adventurer who strode into the queen’s favor with a graceful and opportune sweep of his cloak. That would be to take too much for granted at least some of his poems and the power in which, through them, Ralegh hoped to participate. Ralegh’s poetry is put into play both by and in power; it demonstrates, probably more clearly than that of any other Elizabethan poet, the unconscious workings of power on discourse, specifically on the language which it controlled, selected, organized, and distributed through approved and determined procedures, delimiting as far as possible the emergence of opposition forces and experiences. The Elizabethan court used poetry and poets alike as the means of stabilizing and controlling its members. To confirm its residual values, it tried to restrict poet and poem as far as possible to the dominant discourses of a colorful, adventurous world, but only at the cost of a frustrating and, in Ralegh’s case, despairing powerlessness.
Much of Ralegh’s poetry looks like typical Petrarchan love poetry—it can be, and no doubt was, to many members of its original audience, read as such. The surface of his verse presents the typical paraphernalia of the Petrarchan lyric—hope and despair, pleasure and fortune, fake love, frail beauty, fond shepherds, coy mistresses, and deceitful time. The magnificent “As you came from the holy land,” which is possibly by Ralegh, can be read as a superbly melancholy affirmation of love, one of the most moving love lyrics of the language. “Nature that washt her hands in milke” takes the reader through a witty blazon of the perfect mistress’s charms, her outside made of “snow and silke,” her “inside . . . only of wantonesse and witt.” Like all Petrarchan mistresses, she has “a heart of stone” and so the lover is poised, in frustration, before his ideal. Then in the second half of the poem, Ralegh ruthlessly tears down all the ideals he has built. What gives the poem its power is the unusually savage use of the Elizabethan commonplace of Time the destroyer, the thief—ravaging, lying, rusting, and annihilating. Time “turnes snow, and silke, and milke, to dust.” What was to the lover the “food of joyes” is ceaselessly fed into the maw of death by time and remorselessly turned into excreta; the moistness of the mistress’s wantonness rendered dry and repulsive. Likewise, the reply to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd” is an impressively terse expression of the carpe diem principle, creating an impassioned stoical voice through the stylistic conventions of the plain Elizabethan voice. Typically, Ralegh has superb control of mood, movement, voice modulation, and an appropriately direct rhetoric.
Ralegh’s poems are those of...
(The entire section is 3,416 words.)