Sir Walter Raleigh Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Sir Walter Raleigh 1554-1618

(Also spelled Ralegh) English poet, travel writer, historian, and essayist.

Few of Queen Elizabeth I's courtiers symbolized the Elizabethan era so completely as Sir Walter Raleigh. His flamboyant personal style, adventurous spirit, outspoken political views, and wide-ranging ambition epitomize the Renaissance ideals of exploration and learning. He also is recognized as a highly accomplished literary stylist and craftsman in both verse and prose. Some critics have compared his poetry with that of John Donne and Philip Sidney and have discovered that it anticipates the seventeenth-century metaphysical style.

Biographical Information

Raleigh was born in 1554 in Hayes, Devonshire, England, into a family of moderate prosperity. As a very young man Raleigh was in France during the civil wars, where he fought for the Huguenot forces. Upon his return to England, he studied at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1572 to 1574. Raleigh's earliest poetry, a series of commendatory verses for George Gascoigne's The Steele Glas, dates from this period. In 1578, he took part in his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition on the ship Falcon. In 1580, Raleigh was appointed head of an infantry company in the Irish Wars and quickly distinguished himself in battle. Upon his return to England in 1581, Raleigh's military successes, including the capture of important enemy documents (as well as support from his influential patrons), led to his meteoric rise in Elizabeth's court.

During the next few decades, Raleigh held a position of power and prestige in the political life of England. In 1584 he was elected to Parliament, and in 1587 he gained official standing in Court as captain of the Queen's Guard, an important post for its intimate access to the Queen. He sponsored England's first voyages to the New World, sending colonists to Virginia in 1585 and 1587. With Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Edward Dyer, and several other friends, Raleigh formed an influential literary club called “the Areopagus.” During this period, Raleigh wrote and published prose pieces on important political questions and historical events, including treatises on war, essays on England's relations with Spain, and an account of the 1587 battle with the Spanish at Cadiz. In fact, he probably wrote most of his verse during this time, all of which was privately circulated, reflecting his relationship as a privileged courtier and suitor to the Queen.

Due in part to his fierce rivalry with the Earl of Essex, Raleigh's privileged position in the court of Elizabeth I began to erode in the late 1580s and early 1590s, culminating in the revelation in 1592 of Raleigh's secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, an attendant of the Queen. The couple were immediately imprisoned in the Tower of London, and Raleigh expressed his sense of loss and anger about the incident in his most important surviving poem, “The Ocean to Cynthia.” By 1593, the Queen's need for Raleigh's services to halt Spanish piracy led to his release from the Tower. He returned to Parliament and eventually regained his post as captain of the Guard, although the intimate royal access he had once enjoyed was never fully restored. Raleigh undertook an expedition to Guiana, publishing an account of the wealth and potential of the area in 1596.

Upon the Queen's death in 1603, Raleigh's fortunes became increasingly precarious. King James I distrusted Raleigh because of his role in Essex's execution and because of their conflicting views towards Spain and Catholicism. Acrimony between the two men led to a charge of conspiracy against Raleigh involving Spain and James I. Found guilty, he was imprisoned for treason in 1603. He spent most of the rest of his life imprisoned, but it was a very productive intellectual time. He pursued his interested in politics, geography, religion, and philosophy and produced several influential prose works, including his ambitious The History of the World. In an attempt to restore his court status, Raleigh convinced King James to release him from prison for a return expedition to Guiana in 1617 to obtain the riches he failed to find on his first voyage. The expedition was a failure, resulting in the death of his son and the humiliation of his forces. Upon his return, Raleigh wrote an “Apology” for his second Guiana trip and attempted to flee to France, but he was intercepted, arrested, and informed of his imminent execution. He was beheaded for treason on October 29, 1618.

Major Works

Raleigh's surviving poetic work, The Ocean to Cynthia, attests to his status as the embodiment of the quintessential Renaissance gentleman-scholar. Because he followed the Elizabethan courtly convention of privately circulating his poetry, much of his verse was lost until the discovery of four fragments of The Ocean to Cynthia in 1870 in Lord Salisbury's library at Hatfield. The Hatfield fragments are titled “The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia” and “The end of the 22 Boock, entreatinge of Sorrow.” The former is more than five-hundred lines, while the latter breaks off after twenty lines. The enigmatic titles of the fragments led scholars to believe that an immense and ambitious epic poem in twenty-two parts had once existed. However, recent scholarship has doubted the existence of such a work, crediting Raleigh with using the titles to suggest an epic scope to please the Queen. As is true of all Raleigh's court poetry, The Ocean to Cynthia is addressed to the Queen and reflects his standing in her favor at the time. It is not surprising, then, that poetry was the method Raleigh chose in his attempt to appease the Queen after her discovery of his secret marriage; The Ocean to Cynthia also is an expression of frustration and anger at his imprisonment.

Critical Reception

Prior to the discovery of the Hatfield fragments, scholars were preoccupied with establishing a definitive body of work that could be directly attributed to Raleigh. Poems in several different anthologies were wrongly identified as his. It is only in the twentieth century that controversies surrounding authorship have begun to settle. Raleigh's poetry has been viewed primarily as prime examples of Elizabethan patronage literature. Recent commentators have considered Raleigh's contribution to Elizabethan literary form apart from the traditional client-patron model, focusing on the language and structure of his works both as examples of the literature of his time and as precursors to later trends. Critics also have argued over the relative completeness of The Ocean to Cynthia and the effectiveness of the works as independent texts. The study of Raleigh's important writings, particularly his complex The Ocean to Cynthia, is ongoing as scholars continue to be challenged to identify and interpret Raleigh's works.

Hoyt H. Hudson (review date 1930)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, in MLN, Vol. XLV, No. 3, March, 1930, pp. 200-03.

[In the following review, Hudson provides a mixed assessment of Agnes M. C. Latham's edition of The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh.]

Miss Latham has performed well a task which wanted doing. Hannah's edition of Ralegh (with other poets) was not revised after 1870. And though the sixty years which have passed have yielded nothing so important as the fragments of Cynthia, which Hannah gave to the world, yet there have been discoveries, some of them made by Miss Latham herself. Hers is the definitive Ralegh,—and will be, unless such findings as now are...

(The entire section is 1102 words.)

Tucker Brooke (essay date 1938)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sir Walter Ralegh as Poet and Philosopher,” in Essays on Shakespeare and Other Elizabethans, Yale University Press, 1948, pp. 121-44.

[In the following essay, originally given as a lecture in 1938, Brooke unfavorably compares Raleigh to his English contemporaries, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe.]

When Sir Walter Ralegh was beheaded, October 29, 1618, there died the last of the Elizabethan romanticists. He outlived his age, and came in the end to suffer by the defects of the very virtues which had made him great.

He has a vast deal in common with each of his romantic colleagues, Sidney, Spenser, and Marlowe. He...

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H. P. Trevor-Roper (review date 1951)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, in The New Statesman and Nation, Vol. XLII, No. 1069, September 1, 1951, p. 230.

[In the following review, Trevor-Roper offers a brief overview of Raleigh's life and career.]

In 1603 the greatest English royal dynasty came to an end. With surprising smoothness King James succeeded Queen Elizabeth. Directly, that transition made the fortune of a great private dynasty, the Cecils of Hatfield; incidentally it ruined one of the greatest living Englishmen, Sir Walter Ralegh.

In November 1603 Sir Walter Ralegh was accused of treason—of seeking, with Spanish and popish aid, to overthrow the new...

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Philip Edwards (essay date 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry,” in Sir Walter Ralegh, Longmans, Green and Co., 1953, pp. 72-126.

[In the following essay, Edwards considers the defining characteristics of Raleigh's poetry.]


Ralegh's was not a mind that considered too curiously in poetry, that worried intricate and subtle problems or often took wing on flights of high imagination. He takes broad and general themes and paints with a broad brush. ‘Joy’ and ‘woe’ are precise enough emotions for him, and ‘sweet spring’ and ‘parched ground’ definite enough images. He chooses the time-honoured commonplaces, the transitoriness of life, the instability...

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Joyce Horner (essay date 1955)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Large Landscape: A Study of Certain Images in Ralegh,” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. V, No. 3, July, 1955, pp. 197-213.

[In the following essay, Horner discusses sea and earth imagery in The Ocean to Cynthia.]

It is at first a matter for surprise that there is so little of the sea in Ralegh's poetry. It is true that since the publication of The Successors of Drake by Sir Julian Corbett, there has been a tendency to discredit Ralegh's seamanship, to look askance at the famous trunkful of books, to find him incompetent and a bungler. But putting his incompetence at its highest, we still face the fact that Ralegh had more first-hand...

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Peter Ure (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh,” in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: Critical Essays by Peter Ure, Liverpool University Press, 1974, pp. 237-47.

[In the following essay, Ure provides an overview of Raleigh's court poetry.]

When Sir Walter Ralegh paid a visit to Edmund Spenser in the autumn of 1589, a few months after Spenser had acquired his castle and estate near Cork, he was a man who had already created his own legend. He was perhaps the most brilliant figure at the brilliant court, hated and courted for his pride and power, already a sea captain, an empire-builder, and an Irish landowner. Spenser has left us an idealized account of their poetical...

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Katherine Duncan-Jones (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Date of Raleigh's ‘21th: and Last Booke of the Ocean to Scinthia’,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. XXI, No. 82, May, 1970, pp. 143-58.

[In the following essay, Duncan-Jones determines the time of composition for Raleigh's poem.]

The longest surviving piece of poetry by Raleigh, the ‘21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia’, was first published, from the holograph at Hatfield, by Archdeacon [John] Hannah in his edition of The Courtly Poets in 1870.1 Hannah believed from internal evidence that the poem was written during Raleigh's last imprisonment, under James I, between 1603 and 1612. [Edmund] Gosse, writing in...

(The entire section is 7145 words.)

Stephen J. Greenblatt (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ralegh's Court Poetry,” in Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles, Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 57-98.

[In the following essay, Greenblatt examines the ways in which Raleigh's poetry was shaped by his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I and his desire to forge a successful career for himself at court.]


Most of Ralegh’'s poems were intimately linked with his place in the court and, in particular, with his “fantastic courtship” of the queen. As it was considered slightly improper for a gentleman to appear in print, he chose to publish very little. Quite apart from the...

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Michael L. Johnson (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Some Problems of Unity in Sir Walter Ralegh's The Ocean's Love to Cynthia,” in Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Winter 1974, pp. 17-30.

[In the following essay, Johnson analyzes the consistency and success of the poem's metaphorical and thematic structure.]

Peter Une, in his article “The Poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh,” makes a distinction between Ralegh and Spenser by considering the first as a poet writing dominantly from within the context of courtly life and the second as one writing from without.1 Thus, although the Queen is frequently the compositional center in the poetry of both, Ralegh writes as an...

(The entire section is 5919 words.)

Edith Whitehurst Williams (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Anglo-Saxon Theme of Exile in Renaissance Lyrics: A Perspective on Two Sonnets of Sir Walter Ralegh,” in ELH, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1975, pp. 171-88.

[In the following essay, Williams examines Raleigh's sonnets in the context of Old English Lyric.]

The line of descent of later English poetry from Anglo-Saxon antecedents becomes increasingly clear as we understand better where to look for the evidence; that is, when we recognize that continuity lies not in a direct line of literary influence, but in theme, in those sound effects most congenial to the language, and often in a heavily connotative diction drawn from the native elements of the language....

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John Winton (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Marriage and Disgrace,” in Sir Walter Ralegh, Michael Joseph, 1975, pp. 109-27.

[In the following essay, Winton relates the circumstances surrounding Raleigh's marriage and fall from royal favor and reflects on how these events formed his work.]

What exactly happened in that summer of 1592 when Sir Walter Ralegh was disgraced and dismissed the Court will probably never now be known. In January he was still high in favour. The Queen was, in fact, then arranging to transfer to him the lease of a property he coveted, Sherborne Castle in Dorset. He returned to England from his sea voyage on or about 16th May. On the 23rd Lord Burghley and the Lord Admiral were...

(The entire section is 7239 words.)

Steven W. May (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Companion Poems in the Ralegh Canon,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 260-73.

[In the following essay, May discusses a few Elizabethan companion poems attributed to Raleigh, concluding these poems “form a coherent pattern which expands our understanding of the overall role of poetry in his life.”]

A number of “companion poems” have survived from the Elizabethan Age in the form of verses which are linked not through general literary influence or similarity but through unmistakably direct relationships. One poem may answer another, usually in a contradictory fashion, or two or more poems may begin with similar...

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Robert E. Stillman (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Words cannot knytt’: Language and Desire in Ralegh's The Ocean to Cynthia, in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 27, Vol. 1, pp. 35-51.

[In the following essay, Stillman emphasizes the connection in The Ocean of Cynthia between Raleigh's loss of Elizabeth I's favor and the inadequacy of language—specifically, the symbolic mode formerly used by Raleigh to represent the Queen's cultic status as a beloved deity—to express his suffering.]

Every mode of thought is bestowed on us, like a gift, with some new principle of symbolic expression. It has a logical development, which is simply the exploitation of all the uses to...

(The entire section is 7021 words.)

Steven W. May (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Courtier's Pen,” in Sir Walter Ralegh, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 25-37.

[In the following excerpt from his critical biography of Raleigh, May offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Raleigh's early verse.]

“Swete were the sauce,” “Sweete ar the thoughtes.” According to John Aubrey, Ralegh “was sometimes a Poet, not often,” while a contemporary said of his last verses that they marked “his farewell of Poetrie wherein he had ben a pidler even from his youth.”1 Both assessments appear to be essentially correct provided we do not underestimate Ralegh's continuous use of poetry in the promotion of his own interests or his...

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Anna Beer (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “’Knowinge shee cann renew’: Sir Walter Ralegh in Praise of the Virgin Queen,” in Criticism, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 497-515.

[In the following essay, Beer analyzes the structure of The Ocean to Cynthia and challenges the assumption of the poem's incompleteness.]

The critical history of Sir Walter Ralegh's poem, “the 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia,” has been dominated by attempts to explain the poem's “incompleteness,” and thus by attempts to describe exactly how and why the poem breaks down. In recent years, this debate has been continued in the language of new historicism and feminism. The poem offers fertile...

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Carlos M. Bajetta (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ralegh's Early Poetry and Its Metrical Context,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. XCIII, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 390-411.

[In the following essay, Bajetta finds similarities between Raleigh's two early poems and places them in the context of their literary milieu.]

Two poems are generally regarded as the first poetical productions of Ralegh: “Walter Rawley of the middle Temple, in Commendation of the Steele Glasse” (in Agnes Latham's edition, 3, no. 1) and “Sweete are the thoughtes wher Hope persvadeth Happe” (4, no. 2). Their first appearances during Ralegh's life are respectively in Gascoigne's Steele Glas (1576, sig. A4r) and in British...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Mills, Jerry Leath. Sir Walter Raleigh: A Reference Guide, edited by James Harner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986, 116 p.

A primary and secondary bibliography.

Sir Walter Ralegh, An Annotated Bibliography, compiled by Christopher M. Armitage. Chapel Hill: the University of North Carolina Press, 1987, 236 p.

A complete bibliography of Raleigh's works as well as works about him.


Adamson, J. H. and Folland, H. F. The Shepherd of the Ocean: An Account of Sir Walter Raleigh and his Times. Boston: Gambit, 1969, 464 p.


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