Sir Walter Ralegh

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Almost immediately after his execution in 1618, the reputation of Sir Walter Ralegh (RAWL-ee) as a patriotic and courageous opponent to James I developed, and as opposition to James and Charles I increased, many prose works were attributed to Ralegh from about 1625 through the end of the seventeenth century. Of those certainly written by Ralegh, there are two pamphlets, A Report of the Fight About the Iles of Açores (1591) and The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596), which express the aggressive buoyancy of Elizabethan imperialist designs on South America and of the control of trade to the New World. Ralegh’s major work outside his poetry is the monumental, unfinished The History of the World (1614), dedicated to and yet containing scarcely disguised criticism of King James, who had him imprisoned between 1603 and 1616, and who (after Ralegh’s hopeless expedition to Guiana to find El Dorado) had him executed. The History of the World was part therapy, part histrionic pique and, like most of Ralegh’s career, significant far beyond its surface ambiguities and chronological contradictions. Torn between being an account of the “unjointed and scattered frame of our English affairs” and a universal history, it is a tribute as well to the dead Queen Elizabeth, “Her whom I must still honour in the dust,” and an indictment of what Ralegh perceived as the corruption of the Jacobean court. For Ralegh, in The History of the World as much as in his poetry, the court was his stage, a place of “parts to play,” in which survival depended on “fashioning of our selves according to the nature of the time wherein we live,” and the power of which dominated his language and, in the most absolute sense, his life. Like his poems, The History of the World is a moving and (far beyond his knowledge) revealing document of the power of the court over the men and women who struggled within it.


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Sir Walter Ralegh’s importance belies the slimness of his poetic output. The author of perhaps two dozen extant poems and a number of brief verse translations, the latter appearing in his The History of the World, Ralegh is nevertheless one of the most important of the Elizabethan courtly makers, articulating with fearful clarity not merely the gaudy surface and fashions of the late Elizabethan age, but also much of the felt pressure of the court, his society’s dominant social power, on the lives and sensibilities of those caught in it. Ralegh described himself toward the end of his life as “a seafaring man, a Souldior and a Courtier,” and his poetry articulates much of what drove him to those vocations. He knew, deeply and bitterly, that, as he puts it in The History of the World , there is nothing more to “becoming a wise man” than “to retire himself from Court.” However, the court was his stage, and it was, he wrote, the “token of a worldly wise man, not to warre or contend in vaine against the nature of the times wherein he lived.” The achievement of his poetry is that it gives reverberating expression to the struggles of those who lived in and were controlled by the Elizabethan court. Most of his poems look, on the surface, like delicate, even trivial, songs, complaints, and compliments typical of Petrarchanism; but they are rich, if often confused, responses to the complex and powerful set of discourses, symbolic formations, and systems of representation that constituted the Elizabethan court. They offer a unique insight into the interplay between the social text of Elizabethan society (the...

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events that made Ralegh’s history) and the literary text (the poems that he made of those events). He is, in many ways, the quintessential court poet of the Elizabethan period inasmuch as his poems are haunted by, determined by, and finally silenced by, the power of the court.


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Greenblatt, Stephen J. Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973. Greenblatt discusses Ralegh’s role-playing and theatrical nature as demonstrated in his court poetry and in The History of the World, both of which receive chapter-length treatments. He also provides the context for The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana, which he regards as reflecting Ralegh’s personal sorrow and the national myths of his age.

Lacey, Robert. Sir Walter Ralegh. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. Lacey’s account reflects the multifaceted nature of his subject in the book’s structure. There are some fifty chapters, divided into seven sections, each charting the ups and downs of Ralegh’s checkered career. From country upstart to royal favorite, from privateer to traitor in the Tower, his life was never still.

Ralegh, Walter. The Letters of Sir Walter Ralegh. Edited by Agnes Latham and Joyce Youings. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1999. Brings together all that is known of Ralegh’s correspondence, uncollected since 1868 and much expanded and refined. Students of history and literature will grasp at this book as it throws a beam across the life of one of the more attractive personalities of the late Tudor and early Jacobean periods.

Rowse, A. L. Sir Walter Ralegh: His Family and Private Life. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962. The first truly significant biography of Ralegh, Rowse’s book offers a perspective gained from the recently discovered diary of Sir Arthur Throckmorton, Ralegh’s brother-in-law, on Ralegh’s life and writing. Illustrated.

Waller, Gary. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. London: Longman, 1986. Waller deconstructs Ralegh’s poetry, which he claims demonstrates how power works on language. For Waller, Ralegh’s poetry simultaneously pays homage to and criticizes the courtly arena where he must play different roles. “As You Come from the Holy Land” and one of the “Scinthia” poems, thus, become poems of tension and value.


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