Sir Walter Raleigh Raleigh, Sir Walter (Vol. 31) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Sir Walter Raleigh 1554–1618

(Also spelled Ralegh) English courtier, poet, prose writer.

Few of Elizabeth I's courtiers symbolized the Elizabethan era as comprehensively as did Sir Walter Raleigh. His flamboyant style, adventureous spirit, outspoken political views, and boundless ambition have come to represent the Renaissance ideals of exploration and learning. As well as having been a man of action, Raleigh has become recognized in modern times as a highly accomplished literary stylist and technician in both verse and prose. Raleigh's History of the World (1614), an unfinished chronicle undertaken while Raleigh was imprisoned, was a standard reference in England and the American colonies for a century after its publication and influenced political and religious thought throughout the seventeenth century. His poem The Ocean to Cynthia (1592?), undiscovered until the 1870s, established in modern times the poetic ability praised by his contemporaries, among them Spenser. Some critics have compared Raleigh's poetry with that of Donne and Sidney, and have discovered in his verse an anticipation of the seventeenth century metaphysical style.

Biographical Information

Raleigh was born c. 1554 in Hayes, Devonshire, England, into a family of moderate prosperity. Although not of the nobility, Raleigh's family had ties to Elizabeth's court through marriage. Raleigh's early education is not documented, although his lifelong anti-Catholic stance, while in keeping with Elizabeth's policies, is attributed to a strict Protestant upbringing. As a teenager, Raleigh was in France during the Civil Wars, where he fought for the Huguenot forces. Upon his return to England, Raleigh studied at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1572 to 1574. He left without taking a degree and enrolled in one of the four Inns of Court which, according to Steven May, were social clubs as well as law schools, "and thus the proper addresses for gentlemen in search of patronage and career openings at court or in the state at large." Raleigh's earliest poetry, a series of commendatory verses for George Gascoigne's The Steele Glas (1576) dates from this period. In 1578, Raleigh took part in his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition on the

Falcon in search of the Northwest Passage. The journey was derailed by privateering and piracy; the Falcon was defeated by the Spanish off Cape Verde, giving Raleigh his first naval military experience. 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 influential patronages, led to a meteoric rise in Elizabeth's favor. Legend has it that Raleigh first caught the Queen's attention by covering a muddy patch in her path with his cloak, but it was more likely his knowledge of Irish affairs, his eloquence and learning, and high recommendations from other important courtiers that quickly established Raleigh as a favorite of the Queen. Elizabeth granted him many important posts and privileges, including the patent for licensing wine sales, a monopoly that brought Raleigh much wealth and influence. For the next two decades, Raleigh held a position of power and influence in the political life of England, and in 1584 he was elected to Parliament. 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. Raleigh was one of the first to realize that England's hope for domination over Spain lay in the establishment of a lucrative colonial empire. He sponsored England's first voyages to the New World, sending colonists to Virginia in 1585 and 1587, and popularized his efforts in England through the introduction of tobacco to court circles. Although the colonists of 1585 came home safely aboard Francis Drake's ship, the latter colonists at Roanoke mysteriously disappeared. Raleigh never abandoned the lost colony and sent rescue ships to Virginia as late as 1602. These efforts at exploration were interrupted by the threat from the Spanish Armada in 1588. Although Raleigh's role in Spain's defeat was apparently conducted from shore, the warship he designed for the campaign was chosen as the flagship for the great battle. In 1589 a minor rift with Elizabeth, caused by mounting rivalry between several of her privileged courtiers, led Raleigh to travel to Ireland, where he formed a close friendship with Edmund Spenser. Immediately recognizing the significance of the Faerie Queene, Raleigh brought Spenser back to court to present the work to Elizabeth. In addition, Raleigh wrote several dedicatory sonnets to the work. During his period of greatest influence, Raleigh wrote and published essays on important political questions and historical events, including treatises on war, relations with Spain, and an account of the 1596 battle with the Spanish at Cadiz. Raleigh 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.

Raleigh's confident, often swaggering court persona and his many successes over his rivals led to conflicts with other powerful courtiers, among them the Earl of Essex. Due to these rivalries, Raleigh's position in Elizabeth's favor 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 was 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. Raleigh paid Elizabeth his portion of the booty from the ship to secure his freedom, thus beginning a slow climb back into her favor. 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. In an attempt to gain favor as well as satisfy his restless spirit, 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. James I distrusted Raleigh because of Raleigh's role in Essex's execution and because of their conflicting views towards Spain and Catholicism. Acrimony between the King and Raleigh led to a charge of conspiracy with Spain against James I. Although Raleigh conducted himself with characteristic wit and aplomb during his defense, his trial for treason was a foregone conclusion for political reasons. Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower for treason in 1603. He spent most of the rest of his life imprisoned in the Tower, which became for him a very productive intellectual time. Raleigh pursued his interests in politics, geography, religion, and philosophy, and produced several influential prose works, including his ambitious The History of the World. Written as a tribute to his patron Prince Henry, the incomplete work was published in 1614 and contained influential passages on the danger of incompetent rulers. In an attempt to restore his court status, Raleigh convinced the King to release him for an ill-fated return expedition to Guiana in 1617 in order 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. Raleigh was beheaded for treason on October 29, 1618, displaying at his death a courage, calm and fortitude that earned him immediate martyrdom among his contemporaries and symbolized his legendary, extraordinary career for subsequent generations.

Major Works

Raleigh's two great surviving works, The Ocean to Cynthia and The History of the World, represent his embodiment as the quintessential Renaissance gentleman scholar, learned and ambitious. Raleigh followed the Elizabethan convention among courtiers of circulating his poetry in private, unpublished form. As a result, much of his poetry was lost, and his renown as a writer was limited to the History until the discovery of four fragments of The Ocean to Cynthia in 1870 in Lord Salisbury's library at Hatfield. Prior to the discovery of the Hatfield manuscript, Raleigh's non-dedicatory poetry could be found published only in scattered anthologies, notably The Phoenix Nest (1593) and Britton's Bowre of Delight (1591). Spenser provided scholars with evidence of the existence of Raleigh's long Cynthia poem in his Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, a recollection of his first meeting with Raleigh in Ireland in which he refers to the poem, and again in a reference to the work in the Faerie Queen. The Hatfield fragments appear to be portions of a much larger poem, entitled "The 21th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia", and "The end of the 22 Boock, entreatinge of Sorrow." The former is over 500 lines, while the latter breaks off after 20 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 in all of Raleigh's court poetry, The Ocean to Cynthia is addressed to the Queen and reflects his standing in her favor at the time. There is evidence that Raleigh and Elizabeth exchanged original poetry as a means of communication and as a method of sweetening the perpetual courtship the Queen demanded from her courtiers. Poems dating from Raleigh's early days at court are written in the Petrarchan model from the point of view of an adoring lover, to which the Queen sometimes responded with verses of her own. 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 was written to please the Queen, but it is also an expression of frustration and anger at Raleigh's imprisonment, a courtier's plea of mercy to his Queen, a rejected suitor's plea to his object of love. Among his prose works, Raleigh's Guiana essays, his several discourses on Parliament and relations with Spain, and his essay offering worldly advice to his son (1603) were influential both in private circulation and published form. However, the popularity of The History of the World overshadowed Raleigh's other accomplishments as a writer and poet for nearly a century after its publication in 1614. Characteristically ambitious in scope, Raleigh intended to cover all of history from the Creation to his own time, but the work was never finished, breaking off after the 2nd century B.C. Although historically discredited after the seventeenth century, the work endured as a standard text for a hundred years after its publication and is thought to be among the first attempts at a comprehensive worldwide historical study. The "Preface" to the work, also referred to as "A Premonition to Princes" was celebrated for its lucid warning against the danger of tyrants. The History's, closing paragraph, beginning "O eloquent, just, and mighty Death!" is still regarded as a superb example of Raleigh's ability to blend his technical skills of language and learning into expressive, enduring poetic constructions.

Critical Reception

Prior to the discovery of the Hatfield fragments, scholars were preoccupied with establishing a definitive body of work directly attributed to Raleigh. Poems in several different notable anthologies were wrongly identified as Raleigh's. It is only in the twentieth century that controversies surrounding authorship have begun to settle. Raleigh's poetry and prose writings in general have been viewed primarily as examples of Elizabethan patronage literature, with an emphasis on the works' relationship to Elizabeth, James I, and Prince Henry. Other critics have studied Raleigh's philosophical and poetic impact on Spenser and the Faerie Queene. Late twentieth century criticism has moved to examine Raleigh's contributions to Elizabethan literary forms apart from the traditional client-patron model, focussing on the language and structure of his important works both as prime examples of the literature of his time and as precursors to later trends in metaphysical styles. Critics have also argued over the relative completeness of his History and The Ocean to Cynthia and the works' effectiveness as self-contained texts. The study of Raleigh's important writings, particularly his complex The Ocean to Cynthia, remains open to students of his work as scholars continue to be challenged to identify and interpret Raleigh's ambitious oeuvre.

Ernest A. Strathmann (essay date 1951)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Of Human Knowledge," in Sir Walter Ralegh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism, Columbia University Press, 1951, pp. 219–53.

[In the essay below, Strathmann places Raleigh's thought in the context of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance scepticism: "we find in [Raleigh's] utterances and writings support for his modest reputation in the seventeenth century as a philosophic sceptic."]

"But for myself, I shall never be persuaded that god hath shut up all light of learning within the lantern of Aristotle's brains."
History, Preface, sig. D2v

Strict philosophical skepticism is far more rare in the...

(The entire section is 10651 words.)

Philip Edwards (essay date 1953)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Prose," in Sir Walter Ralegh, Longmans, Green and Co, 1953, pp. 127–71.

[In the following essay, Edwards examines the nature of Raleigh's prose works, focusing in particular on his treatment of military and naval engagements, his reflective writings, and his conception of historiography.]

The profuseness and variety of Ralegh's prose writings are formidable. As a naval commander, he sends an excited account of a great battle to a friend; for his son he inscribes some rather heavy-handed paternal advice; he translates excerpts from a Sceptic philosopher; he extols the virtues of Guiana as a colony; he composes a treatise on the art of war at sea; from the...

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Christopher Hill (lecture date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Ralegh—Science, History, and Politics," in Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, 1965. Reprint by Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1980, pp. 131–224.

[In the following excerpt, taken from an expanded version of a lecture originally delivered at Oxford University in 1962, Hill provides an overview of Raleigh's social, political, and intellectual background, focusing in particular on the courtier's literary and scientific pursuits and his involvement in foreign policy during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.]

Sir Walter Ralegh was born in 1554, so he was not fifty when Elizabeth died and his career as a royal favourite came to an end. But Ralegh...

(The entire section is 9198 words.)

C. A. Patrides (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An introduction to The History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh, edited by C. A. Patrides, 1614. Reprint by Temple University Press, 1971, pp. 1–39.

[In the essay below, Patrides analyzes the Christian historiographical method that informs Raleigh's The History of the World.]

The History of the World has been termed 'the first serious attempt in England, and one of the first in modern Europe, at a history the scope of which should be universal in both time and space' [by Newman T. Reed, in Northwestern University Summaries of Dissertations II, 1934]. In fact, however, its general framework is not in the least original; it belongs to the...

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Stephen J. Greenblatt (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 analysis of Raleigh's court poetry, which focuses on The Ocean to Cynthia, Greenblatt examines the ways in which the poetry was shaped by Raleigh's relationship with Queen Elizabeth I and his desire to forge a successful career for himself at court.]

My soul the stage of fancy's tragedy

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...

(The entire section is 12650 words.)

Marion Campbell (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Inscribing Imperfection: Sir Walter Ralegh and the Elizabethan Court," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 233–53.

[In the following essay, Campbell analyzes the structure and historical context of Raleigh's "The Ocean to Cynthia," arguing that the work is "a poem consumed with loss " for Raleigh's failure to remain in favor with Queen Elizabeth I.]

The poem by Sir Walter Ralegh known as "The Ocean to Scinthia" has long provided a puzzle for critics, who acknowledge its emotional power and intellectual complexity, but feel uneasy about its clearly unfinished state. In twentieth-century criticism the poem has been largely...

(The entire section is 8232 words.)

Louis Montrose (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery," in Representations, No. 33, Winter, 1991, pp. 1–41.

[In the following essay, Montrose examines the cultural background of Raleigh's The Discoverie of Guiana (1596), focusing specifically on the presence of such opposing values in the work as European and Indian, English and Spanish, culture and nature, and male and female.]

Early modern Europe's construction of its collective Other in "the New World"—its construction of the "savage" or the "Indian"—was accomplished by the symbolic and material destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, in systematic attempts to destroy...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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

A bibliography of Raleigh's writings, including a listing of critical writing on his works.

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...

(The entire section is 761 words.)