Sir Walter Ralegh

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3416

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.

Petrarchan lyrics

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...

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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.

Gifted amateur

Ralegh’s poems are those of the gifted amateur—seemingly casual compliment, occasional verse typically dropped, as the manuscript title of another poem has it, “into my Lady Laiton’s pocket.” Such a poem looks like one of the many erotic lyrics of the Renaissance which, as Michel Foucault has written, allowed men to overhear and will another to “speak the truth of” their sexuality. Ralegh’s poetry, however, does more than introduce sexuality into discourse: Inevitably the language of erotic compliment and complaint is inseparable from the language of power. Despite their seemingly trivial, light, or occasional nature—epitaphs on Sir Philip Sidney’s death, “A farewell to false love,” dedicatory poems to works by George Gascoigne or Edmund Spenser, or poems directly or indirectly written to the queen—their significance reverberates far beyond their apparently replete surface configuration of stock metaphor and gracefully logical structure.

Ralegh’s public roles

Ralegh’s predominant public roles were those of a man who consciously identified entirely with what he perceived as the dominant forces of his society—and, like his poetry, Ralegh’s life is like a palimpsest, requiring not only reading but also interpretation and demystification in depth. As Stephen Greenblatt has suggestively argued, “Ralegh” is in a way a curiously hollow creation, the production of many roles in the theater of the court. Greenblatt has argued that Ralegh saw his life as a work of art, and the court as a “great theater” in which the boldest author would be the most successful. His career from the late 1570’s might suggest that his multiplicity reflects an inner hollowness as he shifts back and forth among the roles of courtier, politician, explorer, freethinker, poet, philosopher, lover, and husband.

In Ralegh’s public career, two dominant discourses clash and contradict—one seeing all human activity as an assertion of the adaptability of the actor, the other a pessimistic view of life as an empty, futile, and unreal theater. While Ralegh adapted to different roles as his ambitions shifted, his very restlessness bespeaks the power of the court. Unlike Sidney, who was a courtier by birth and privilege, Ralegh became one because his identity and survival depended on it. His place in a world that was dangerous and unpredictable was never stable, and even its apparently fixed center, the queen, was unpredictable and arbitrary.

Problems of attribution

Introducing Ralegh’s role as a poet, it must be noted how the term “possibly” must be continually used to qualify assertions about the authorship of many of the poems attributed to him. Despite the confident assertions of some modern editors, Michael Rudick has shown that scholars do not in fact know whether many of the poems attributed to Ralegh in the manuscripts and miscellanies in which Elizabethan court poetry habitually circulated are in fact his; despite possessing more holograph material for Ralegh than for any other Elizabethan poets except Sir Thomas Wyatt and Robert Sidney, scholars can only speculate about the authorship of many of the best poems attributed to him. Even modern editors and biographers attribute poems to him on primarily sentimental grounds, but in one important sense, the lack of definitive attribution does not matter: Elizabethan court poetry often speaks with the voice of a collectivity, its authors scriptors or spokesmen for the values of a dominant class and its ideology. In short, the author’s relationship to the languages that traverse him is much more complex than is allowed for by the sentimental nineteenth century biographical criticism that has held sway in Ralegh scholarship until very recently. In any court lyric, there is an illimitable series of pretexts, subtexts, and post-texts that call into question any concept of its “author” as a free, autonomous person. Ralegh’s poems, like those of Sir Philip Sidney or Spenser, are sites of struggle, attempts by Ralegh (or whatever court poet may have “written” them) to write himself into the world. Hence there is a sense in which we should speak of “Ralegh” as the symptomatic court poet, rather than Ralegh the poet—or, perhaps, of “Ralegh” and “his” poems alike as texts, requiring always to be read against what they seem to articulate, often speaking out in their silences, in what they cannot or dare not say but nevertheless manage to express.

Court ideology

Some of the poems are, however, very explicit about their ideological source, even verging on propagandist art. “Praisd be Dianas faire and harmles light” is a poem (again possibly by Ralegh) which reifies the ideals of the court in a hymn of celebration, demanding in ways that other Elizabethan lyrics rarely do, allegiance to the magical, timeless world of the Elizabethan court, in which no challenge to the replete atmosphere can be admitted and in which the readers are permitted to share only so long as they acknowledge the beauty of the goddess whom the poem celebrates. The poem’s atmosphere is incantatory, its movement designed like court music to inculcate unquestioning reverence and subordination. Only the subhuman (presumably any reader foolish, or treasonous, enough to dissent from its vision) are excluded from the charm and power that it celebrates: “A knowledge pure it is hir worth to kno,/ With Circes let them dwell that thinke not so.”

George Puttenham mentions Ralegh’s poetry approvingly as “most lofty, insolent and passionate,” and by the mid-1580’s, when he expressed his view, Ralegh already had the reputation of being a fine craftsperson among the “crew of courtly makers, noblemen and gentlemen” of Elizabeth’s court. In what another of Ralegh’s contemporaries called the “Terra infirma of the Court,” Ralegh used his verse as one of the many means of scrambling for position. His verse, in C. S. Lewis’s words, is that of the quintessential adaptable courtly amateur, “blown this way and that (and sometimes lifted into real poetry).” He is the lover, poor in words but rich in affection; passions are likened to “floudes and streames”; the lover prays “in vayne” to “blinde fortune” but nevertheless resolves: “But love, farewell, thoughe fortune conquer thee,/ No fortune base nor frayle shall alter mee” (“In vayne my Eyes, in vayne yee waste your tears”). However apparently depoliticized these poems are, they are the product of the allurement and dominance of the court, their confidence less that of the poet himself than of the power of the structures in which he struggles to locate himself. His characteristic pose is that of the worshiper, devoted to the unapproachable mistress or, as the idealizing devotee with the queen as the unwavering star, the chaste goddess, the imperial embodiment of justice, the timeless principle around which the universe turns. In the way that Ben Jonson’s masques were later to embody the ideology of the Jacobean court, so Ralegh’s poems evoke the collective fantasy of the Elizabethan—a world that is harmonious and static, from which all change has been exorcized.

Hatfield poems

Aside from this miscellany (sometimes startlingly evocative, invariably competent and provoking), there are four closely connected and important poems, all undoubtedly Ralegh’s, which were found in his own handwriting among the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, north of London, the family home of Ralegh’s great enemy Robert Cecil. They are “If Synthia be a Queene, a princes, and supreame,” “My boddy in the walls captivated,” “Sufficeth it to yow, my joyes interred”— which is headed “The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia”—and “The end of the bookes, of the Oceans love to Scinthia, and the beginninge of the 22 Boock, entreatinge of Sorrow.” The existence of a poem, or poems, directly written to the queen and titled Cynthia seems to be mentioned by Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and it is usually characterized as being parts of or related to the Hatfield poems. It is probably, however, that the third and fourth poems were written, or at least revised, during Ralegh’s imprisonment in 1592.

“The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia”

“The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia,” the most important of the group, appears to be a scarcely revised draft of an appeal, if not to the queen herself, at least to that part of Ralegh’s mind occupied by her power. It lacks narrative links; its four-line stanzas are often imperfect, with repetitions and gaps that presumably would have been revised later. Its unfinished state, however, makes it not only a fascinating revelation of Ralegh’s personal and poetic anguish, but also perhaps the clearest example in Elizabethan court poetry of the way the dynamics and contradictions of power speak through a text. “The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia” repeatedly deconstructs the philosophy to which it gives allegiance: Its incoherences, gaps, uncertainties, and repetitions both affirm and negate Elizabethan mythology. What in Ralegh’s other poems is expressed as complete ideological closure is undermined by the fractures and symptomatic maladjustments of the text. Nowhere in Elizabethan poetry is a poem as obviously constitutive of ideological struggle.

The poem is addressed to a patently transparent Cynthia who has withdrawn her favor from the faithful lover. Ralegh projects himself as a despairing lover fearfully aware that his service has been swept into oblivion, simultaneously acknowledging that honors inevitably corrupt and that he cannot keep from pursuing them. The “love” that he has seemingly won includes favors that open doors not only to glory but also to ruin and death. However, even knowing this, it is as if he cannot help himself “seeke new worlds, for golde, for prayse, for glory,” with the tragic result that “Twelve yeares intire I wasted in this warr.” The result of his “twelve yeares” dedication has been imprisonment and disgrace, yet he is helpless before his own inability to abandon the glories of office. “Trew reason” shows power to be worthless, but even while he knows that “all droopes, all dyes, all troden under dust,” he knows also that the only stability in the world of power is the necessity of instability and emulation.

The Petrarchan motifs with which the successful courtier has played so effectively, almost on demand—the helpless lover wooing the unapproachable mistress who is the unattainable goal of desire—have suddenly and savagely been literalized. The role that Ralegh has played has exploded his habitual adaptability. He cannot protest that the game of the despairing lover is only a game; it has now become real. In 1592, he wrote to Cecil: “My heart was never broken till this day, that I hear the queen goes away so far off—whom I have followed so many years with so great love and desire, in so many journeys, and am now left behind her in a great prison alone.” The letter is an obvious echo of the lines from Ralegh’s adaption of the Walsingham ballad, “As you came from the holy land.” The contradictions of Ralegh’s life which the poem now voices had been repressed and silenced during his imprisonment, but now they are revealed as terrifyingly real. By marrying, Ralegh himself has ceased to play Elizabeth’s game; he has thus found that the role of masochistic victim in which he cast himself for political advantage has been taken literally and he has become an outcast. “The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia” expresses the agony of a man whose choices and commitments have been built on the myth of a changeless past in an ever-moving power struggle. The very unfinished quality of Ralegh’s fragment is the perfect formal expression of the disruptiveness that has overwhelmed him.

“The Lie”

It is fortunate that another key poem in this period is among the Hatfield manuscripts. “The Lie” is a release of explicit rage, a struggle to find form for deep frustration and venom, finding no alternative to renunciation and repulsion. It is a statement of deeply felt impotence, probably written after Ralegh’s release from prison in 1592, but before he was restored to favor. Ralegh’s poem is seemingly total in its rejection of the ideology by which he has lived: Natural law, universal harmony, love, and court artifice are all rejected in a mood of total condemnation. However, Ralegh’s poem is neither philosophically nihilistic nor politically radical: The force of his revulsion from the court does not allow for any alternative to it. What dies is the “I” of the poem, as he gives the lie to the world, and takes refuge in a savage contemptus mundi. “The Lie” is at once an explosion of frustration and beneath ideological confidence. In such poems, the ideology is betrayed by writing itself; the poem constantly releases an anxiety for realities that challenge the surface harmonies and struggle unsuccessfully to be heard against the dominant language of the court poetic mode. What readers start to recognize as Ralegh’s characteristic melancholic formulation of the persistence of “woe” or pain as the very mark of human self-consciousness is the special telltale sign of his texts as sites of struggle and repression. “The life expires, the woe remaines” is a refrain echoed by “Of all which past, the sorrow, only stays” (“Like truthless dreams”) and by phrases in The History of the World such as “Of all our vain passions and affections past, the sorrow only abideth.” Such recurring motifs impart more than a characteristic tone to Ralegh’s verse. They point to the frustrated insurrection of subjugated experience struggling to find expression, knowing that there are no words permitted for it.


Ralegh’s poems, then, are haunted by what they try to exorcise: a fragility that arises from the repressed political uncertainties of court life in the 1580’s and 1590’s and that undermines his chosen role as the spokesperson of a replete court ideology. Despite its confident surface, all his verse is less a celebration of the queen’s power than a conspiracy to remain within its protection. The Petrarchan clichés of “Like truthless dreams, so are my joys expired” and the Neoplatonic commonplaces of the “Walsingham” ballad become desperate pleas for favor, projections into lyric poems of political machinations. “Concept begotten by the eyes” also starts out as a stereotypical contrast between “desire” and “woe” and emerges as a poignant cry of radical insecurity and a powerless acknowledgment that the personality of the court poet and of Ralegh himself is a creation of the discourses he has uneasily inhabited and from which he now feels expelled. The Hatfield poems illustrate with wonderful clarity what all Elizabethan court poetry tries to repress: that however the poet asserts his autonomy, he is constituted through ideology, having no existence outside the social formation and the signifying practice legitimized by the power of the court. Ralegh, like every other poet who wrestled within the court, does not speak so much as he is spoken.

More than twenty years later, after a revival of fortunes under Elizabeth, arrest, imprisonment, release, and rearrest under James, Ralegh prematurely brought his history to an end. The work, written to justify God’s providential control of time, articulates a view of history that radically undercuts its author’s intentions. For Ralegh, history has no final eschatological goal, no ultimate consummation. It consists only of the continual vengeance of an angry God until “the long day of mankinde is drawing fast towards an evening, and the world’s Tragedie and time neare at an end.” A few years later, on the eve of his execution, Ralegh took up the last lines of the lyric written twenty-five years before on the ravages of time that he had felt all his life:

Even such is tyme which takes in trustOur yowth, our Joyes, and all we have,And payes us butt with age and dust:When we have wandred all our wayes,Shutts up the storye of our dayes.

He appended to it, in two new lines, the only hope of which he could conceive, a deus ex machina to rescue him, in a way that neither queen nor king had, from the grip of time’s power: “And from which earth and grave and dust/ The Lord shall raise me up I trust.” It is a cry of desperation, not a transformation of “the consuming disease of time” as he puts it in The History of the World. What is finally triumphant over Ralegh is the power of the world in which he courageously yet blindly struggled and of which his handful of poems are an extraordinarily moving acknowledgment and testament.