Sir Walter Raleigh Raleigh, Sir Walter (Vol. 39) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Sir Walter Raleigh 1554–1618

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

The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Raleigh's role in the Age of Spenser. For further information on Raleigh, see LC, Vol. 31.

Few of Queen Elizabeth I's courtiers symbolized the Elizabethan era so comprehensively 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. A man of action, Raleigh is also recognized as a highly accomplished literary stylist and craftsman in both verse and prose. His The History of the World (1614), an unfinished chronicle undertaken while he 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, confirmed in modern times the poetic ability praised by his contemporaries, among them his friend Edmund Spenser. Some critics have also compared Raleigh's poetry with that of John Donne and Philip Sidney and have discovered that it in some ways anticipates the seventeeth-century metaphysical style.

Biographical Information

Raleigh was born c. 1554 in Hayes, Devonshire, England, into a family of moderate prosperity. (The family name has been spelled in various ways including Raleigh and Ralegh both in Raleigh's own time and later; scholars now agree that the most authentic spelling is most likely "Ralegh.") Although not of the nobility, Raleigh's family had ties to Elizabeth's court through marriage. Raleigh's early education is not documented, but his lifelong anti-Catholic stance, while in keeping with Elizabeth's policies, is attributed to a strict Protestant upbringing. 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, 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 biographer 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 ship 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 support from his influential patrons), led to his 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, more likely, it was his knowledge of Irish affairs, his eloquence and learning, and his high recommendations from other important courtiers that quickly established Raleigh as a favorite of the Queen. For the next two decades, Raleigh held a position of power and prestige in the political life of England. Elizabeth granted him many important posts and privileges, including the patent for licensing wine sales, a monopoly that brought Raleigh much wealth and influence. 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. 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 he 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 later colonists from Roanoke mysteriously disappeared. Raleigh never abandoned the lost colony and continued to send 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 Spenser, who was at that time serving a political post in Cork. Philip Sidney, Spenser, Edward Dyer, and several other friends formed a literary club, the "Areopagus." Immediately recognizing the significance of Spenser's 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 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 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 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. In an attempt to gain royal favor as well as to 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. 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 led to a charge of conspiracy against Raleigh involving Spain and James I. Although Raleigh conducted himself with characteristic wit and aplomb during his defense, the outcome of his trial 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 there and it was 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, which was published in 1614, contained influential passages on the danger of incompetent rulers. In an attempt to restore his court status, Raleigh convinced the King 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. 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 summed up his extraordinary career for subsequent generations.

Major Works

Raleigh's two great surviving works, The Ocean to Cynthia and The History of the World, attest to his status as the embodiment of the quintessential Renaissance gentleman scholar, learned and ambitious. Raleigh followed the Elizabethan courtly convention of privately circulating his poetry. Because of this circumstance, 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. Spenser provided scholars with evidence of the existence of Raleigh's long Cynthia poem in his Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (1595), 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 Queene. The Hatfield fragments are 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 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. There is evidence that Raleigh and Elizabeth exchanged original poetry as a means of communication and as a method of enhancing the perpetual courtship the Queen demanded from her courtiers. Poems dating from Raleigh's early days at court are written in the Petrarchan mode, 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 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 on relations with Spain, and his essay offering worldly advice to his son (1603-05) were most influential. However, the popularity of The History of the World overshadowed Raleigh's other literary accomplishments for nearly a century after its publication (the book went through twice as many editions in the seventeenth century as the collected works of either Spenser or Shakespeare). Characteristically ambitious in scope, the work was intended to cover all of history from the Creation to his own time, but the work was never finished, breaking off after the second century B.C. Although 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. In addition, the History, which expressed Raleigh's confirmed belief in the Christian doctrine of providence, did much to dispel the notion that he was an atheist, a rumor that had been spread by his enemies. 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 learning and craftsmanship 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 that could be directly attributed to Raleigh. Poems in several different 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. Critics have also studied Raleigh's philosophical and poetic impact on Spenser and the Faerie Queene. Late-twentieth-century critics have examined 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 prime examples of the literature of his time and as precursors to later trends. Critics have also argued over the relative completeness of his History and 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. His life, too, still generates interest for, as Philip Edwards has remarked, "By his capacity for excellence in so very many spheres, as courtier, soldier, historian, poet, scientist, explorer, administrator, he … is a living example of the belief of his age that a man should develop all his potentialities and realise his whole personality."

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Iles of Acores, this last Sommer. Betwixt the Reuenge, one of her Maiesties Shippes, And an Armada of the King of Spaine (essay) 1591

The Ocean to Cynthia (poetry) 1592?

The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana (travel essay) 1596

*A Relation of Cadiz Action, in the Year 1596 (essay) 1596

Of a War with Spain and our Protecting the Netherlands (essay) 1602

**Sir Walter Raleighs Instrvctions to his Sonne and to Posterity (prose) 1603-05

The History of the World (history) 1614


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Tucker Brooke (lecture date 1938)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 excerpt, which is drawn from a lecture originally delivered in 1938, Brooke discusses Raleigh's poetry and prose, as well as his personality and career, as products of Elizabethan romanticism.]

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,...

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Ernest A. Strathmann (essay date 1951)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Judicious Historian," in Sir Walter Ralegh: A Study in Elizabethan Skepticism, Columbia University Press, 1951, pp. 254-75.

[In the following excerpt, Strathmann examines the considerable fluctuations in Raleigh's reputation during his lifetime and on into the twentieth century, focusing on the History and Raleigh's alleged atheism.]

Informations are often false, records not always true, and notorious actions commonly insufficient to discover the passions which did set them first on foot. (History, II, xxi, 6)

The chronicle of Ralegh's fame and disrepute, in Chapter II, stops with...

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Philip Edwards (essay date 1953)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Renaissance Imagination," in Sir Walter Ralegh, Longmans, Green and Co., 1953, pp. 46-71.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards explains why he considers Raleigh the embodiment of the chief characteristics of the Renaissance, primarily discussing Raleigh's interest in science and the arts and his religious beliefs.]

We have grown rather shy of using the term 'Renaissance': as we know more, it becomes increasingly hard to say when it was or what it was. I use the word to define that long period of overlap between the medieval and the modern worlds: a period for which the thirteenth century is hardly too early a beginning or the eighteenth too...

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Peter Ure (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh," in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3, July, 1960, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Ure contrasts Raleigh's poetry with that of Spenser and emphasizes that, as both a literary artist and man, Raleigh left an ambiguous impression.]

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...

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Stephen J. Greenblatt (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Ralegh and the Dramatic Sense of Life," in Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles, Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 22-56.

[In the following excerpt, Greenblatt traces the origins of Raleigh's histrionic conception of himself and of his surroundings, a worldview that, according to the critic, manifested itself in Raleigh's writings in both deeply pessimistic and highly optimistic appraisals of humankind's ability to control their destiny.]

What is our life? A play of passion

At his execution, as at other crucial moments of his life, Ralegh displayed the talents of a great actor. Again and again we see him performing a...

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John Racin (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Historian and His Appropriate Subject Matter," in Sir Walter Ralegh as Historian: An Analysis of "The History of the World, " Institut für Englische Sprache, 1974, pp. 43-76.

[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of Raleigh's History, Racin elucidates Raleigh's concept of truth in historiography and his understanding of his role as a historian.]

The historian's raison d'être for Ralegh was the search for truth. We see in the History his laborious efforts to establish the historicity of the past, a task which required a carefully wrought synthesis of authority, reason, conjecture, and personal experience. For Ralegh...

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Gerald Hammond (essay date 1984)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: An Introduction to Sir Walter Ralegh: Selected Writings, Carcanet Press, 1984, pp. 7-20.

[In the following introduction to his edition of Raleigh's selected works, Hammond underscores the essentially pessimistic tone of Raleigh's writings and describes the stylistic features of his poetry and prose.]

Sir Walter Ralegh was a bad walker and did not know Hebrew.1 These two readily admitted deficiencies apart, it is difficult to think of any other large limitations to his achievement or ambition. He was soldier, scholar, horseman, and much else: father of the idea of the British Empire; chemist and alchemist; patron of poets, and yet a fine enough poet...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Armitage, Christopher M., ed. Sir Walter Ralegh: An Annotated Bibliography. Chapel Hill: University or North Carolina Press, 1987, 236 p.

A bibliography of primary and secondary sources divided into seven sections: 1) Published Works Written by or Attributed to Raleigh; 2) Raleigh in Biography; 3) Raleigh in England, Ireland, and Europe; 4) Raleigh in the Americas; 5) Raleigh in Literary History and Criticism; 6) Raleigh in Literature, Music, the Visual Arts, and Books for Children; and 7) Raleigh in Bibliography.


May, Steven W. Sir Walter Ralegh. Edited by...

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