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.
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.
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.
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.