(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3416 words.)