Walter Raleigh (also spelled Ralegh) (c. 1552–1618) was born into a well-connected gentry family in Devon. At the age of 17, he left England for France to fight with the Huguenots (French Protestants) in the Wars of Religion. Upon his return, he studied law in London. During this time, he began his life-long interest in writing poetry.
In 1578, Raleigh set out with his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert on a voyage to North America to find the Northwest Passage. Never reaching its destination, the mission degenerated into a privateering foray against Spanish shipping. His brash actions were not well received by the Privy Council, the monarch’s advisors, and he was briefly imprisoned.
Between 1579 and 1583, Raleigh fought in the service of Queen Elizabeth I in Ireland, distinguishing himself (or demeaning his character if , like me, you are Irish) with his ruthlessness at the siege of Smerwick. He established settlements for English and Scottish Protestants in Munster. Tall, handsome, and superbly self-confident, Raleigh rose rapidly at Elizabeth I’s court, upon his return, and quickly became a favourite. She rewarded him with a large estate in Youghal in Ireland, monopolies, trade privileges, knighthood, and the right to colonize North America. In 1586, he was appointed captain of the Queen’s Guard. Extravagant in dress and conduct, the legend that he spread his expensive cloak over a puddle for the Queen has never been documented, but many historians believe him capable of such a gesture.
Between 1585 and 1588, he invested in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, attempting to establish a colony near Roanoke, now North Carolina, and name it “Virginia” in honor of the virgin queen, Elizabeth. Delays, quarrels, disorganization, and hostile Indians forced some of the colonists to eventually return to England. Raleigh has been credited with bringing potatoes and tobacco back to Britain, although both of these were already known via the Spanish. He did help to make smoking popular at court.
In 1592, the queen discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage to one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. This threw Elizabeth into a jealous rage and Raleigh and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower. On his release, in an attempt to find favour with the queen, he set off on an unsuccessful expedition to find El Dorado, the fabled ‘Golden Land’, rumoured to be situated somewhere beyond the mouth of the Orinoco river in Guiana (now Venezuela). The expedition produced a little gold, but subsequent forays to Cadiz and the Azores reinstated him with the queen.
Elizabeth’s successor, James I of England and VI of Scotland, disliked Raleigh, and in 1603 he was accused of plotting against the king and sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to imprisonment in the Tower. There Raleigh lived with his wife and servants and wrote his History of the World in 1614. In 1616, Raleigh was released to lead a second expedition to search for El Dorado. The expedition was a failure, and Raleigh also defied the king’s instructions by attacking the Spanish. On his return to England, the death sentence was reinstated and Raleigh’s execution took place on 29 October 1618. He conducted himself with admirable courage throughout the formal procedure of that execution.
The Poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh
My source for Raleigh’s poems comes from a long treasured book, first published in 1951 – The Poems of Sir Walter Raleigh, edited by Agnes Latham in The Muses Library series. There are less than fifty poems definitively attributed to Raleigh in the book, yet they contain some of the best poems of the Renaissance period in English literature. Not many of them are short enough to tweet, yet I have reserved a post for Raleigh because of two: the remarkable and remarkably brave epigram he wrote the night before his execution and the wonderful translation from Catullus that is included in the “Metrical Translations” section of the book. I have included other translations, not just to pad out the post, but because they have a genuine eloquence.
Brief Poems by Sir Walter Raleigh
SIR W. RALEIGH ON THE SNUFF OF A CANDLE THE NIGHT BEFORE HE DIED
COWARDS [may] fear to die; but courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.
An Epigram On Henry Noel
The word of denial and the letter of fifty
Makes the gentleman’s name that will never be thrifty.
Translation from Catullus
The sun may set and rise;
But we, contrariwise,
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.
Translations from Ovid
The joyful spring did ever last, and Zephyrus did breed
Sweet flowers by his gentle blast, without the help of seed.
No man was better nor more just than he,
Nor any woman godlier than she.
The ancients called me Chaos; my great years
By those old times of which I sing appears
While fury gallops on the way,
Let no man fury’s gallop stay.
Translation from Tibullus
Nine furlongs stretched lies Tityus, who for his wicked deeds
The hungry birds with his renewing liver daily feeds.
Translation from Juvenal
Even they that have no murderous will
Would have it in their power to kill.
Translation from Horace
Seldom the villain, though much haste he make,
Lame-footed vengeance fails to overtake.
Robert Pinsky’s interesting comments on a Walter Raleigh poem, Nature That washed Her Hands in Milk.
An interesting essay on Raleigh by Henry David Thoreau.
Selected Poetry and Prose of SirWalter Raleigh on the Luminarium site.
Metrical Translations occurring in Sir W. Raleigh’s History of the World, 1614.
Fragments and Epigrams by Sir Walter Raleigh.