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Christopher M. Armitage, ed. Literary and Visual Ralegh
by Dennis Austin Britton

Armitage, Christopher M., ed. Literary and Visual Ralegh. Manchester: University of Manchester P, 2013. xii + 396 pp. ISBN: 978-0719087714. $110.00 cloth.

Early in their introduction to Literary and Visual Ralegh, published as part of Manchester University Press’s “The Manchester Spenser” series, Christopher M. Armitage, Thomas Herron, and Julian Lethbridge assert, “It is a good time to reassess Ralegh’s literary output” (3). This conviction arises from an appraisal of Ralegh’s continual presence in the Anglo-American cultural imagination—several essays in the collection look at Ralegh’s influence and representations of him well into the twenty-first century—and a desire to advance our understanding of Ralegh and his works beyond that which was so influentially initiated by Stephen Greenblatt in Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (1973). If Greenblatt’s Ralegh is a self-fashioned piece of art and a virtuosic actor on the Renaissance stage, the Ralegh of this collection expresses a “real” person. The introduction’s authors argue that we have made too much of the “roles” Ralegh played: “We are misled by a metaphor. It would be better to say that the fashioning, the roles that we see, are expressions of the man,” and, “Attention to a role is attention to the person—not behind, but in that role, and the question of Ralegh’s greatness is how many roles he played and played convincingly and, for at least a while, successfully” (13, 14). The thirteen essays in the collection paint a picture of a Ralegh who is more sincere and self-expressive than that of the new historicists; the essays portray a Ralegh who pours something of himself into the form and content of his writings rather than one whose texts merely play games at court or channel larger historical discourses. The essays diversely examine the historical, biographical, and literary contexts of Ralegh’s writings, as well as depictions of him in film and other media, and traces of his literary influence from his time into our own. One of the strengths of the collection as a whole is that, in addition to providing thoughtful analyses of Ralegh’s writings, its essays champion the agency of the author. Yet some readers may question the manner in which Ralegh’s poetry is read in relation to his biography. In this review I will focus on essays concerning Ralegh’s poetry and his relationship with Spenser and briefly describe the topics of the other essays.  

The first four essays explore Ralegh’s relationship with Spenser, primarily through examining connections between Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Colin Clouts Come Home Again and Ralegh’s The Ocean to Cynthia. These essays also uncover just how much Ralegh’s and Spenser’s poems converse with each other. The opening essay is James Nohrnberg’s “Raleigh in ruins, Raleigh on the rocks: Sir Wa’ter’s two Books of Mutabilitie and their subject’s allegorical presence in select Spenserean [sic] narratives and complaints.”[1] This is a wide-reaching and substantial essay (fifty-eight pages) that engages both Ralegh’s biography—namely, the royal disfavor he acquired after his affair with Elizabeth Throckmorton—and water, his nickname at court, as an important image that governs both the theme and the generic fluidity of The Ocean to Cynthia. According to Nohrnberg, “Raleigh’s verses are the abject poetical confession of the distraught courtier’s despair over his—Sir Wa’ter’s—precipitous descent from royal favour into the muddy mess of political and sexual disgrace,” and, “The mutable element of water, from which came Sir Wa’ter’s nickname at court, ruefully appears in all of its forms and variety within his poem, pouring down, welling up, drying out, going vapourously away” (35, 36). Water thus becomes an apt metaphor for expressing Ralegh’s uncertain position after his affair with Throckmorton, especially because it at once links his unstable political standing with his very name and person. As we all know, Nohrnberg is an astonishing close reader. Nowhere is this more evident than in the surprising, and convincing, connections he makes between Wa’ter Ralegh as Ocean, Timias, and Spenser’s watery knight, Marinell. Nohrberg’s essay not only provides an illuminating reading of The Ocean to Cynthia, but it also reveals a Spenser who engages with Ralegh’s life and poetry in ways that have not previously been acknowledged.

Wayne Erickson, too, takes up Ralegh’s relationship with Spenser, but he asks us to consider what it means to say that the two were friends; he reminds us that if they were friends, they were unequal ones, for Ralegh was far more important to Spenser’s career than Spenser was to Ralegh’s. Hence, “readers should certainly be wary of collapsing fiction into biography” (92); readers should not read Colin Clout’s relationship with the Shepherd of the Ocean as an accurate representation of Ralegh and Spenser’s relationship, for example. Nevertheless, we also should not read Spenser as a mere sycophant or subordinate. Erickson provides a reading of Spenser’s letter to Ralegh that produces a nuanced picture of what their relationship might have looked like. His reading hinges upon the meaning of “command,” when Spenser writes early in the letter that he will explain The Faerie Queene’s allegory, “being so by [Ralegh] commanded” (quoted in Erikson, 96). For Erikson, this is either a direct command, in which Spenser acknowledges Ralegh as a superior, or it is an ironic overstatement for a request or recommendation that Ralegh made. Either way, the use of the word implies that Ralegh questioned how Spenser’s poem might be interpreted, perhaps seeing something in it that could be dangerously misread. But if there is something potentially dangerous about the poem, Spenser passes the buck back to Ralegh, writing that his Gloriana is inspired by Ralegh’s Cynthia.

Thomas Herron’s essay, “Love’s ‘emperye’: Raleigh’s ‘Ocean to Scinthia,’ Spenser’s ‘Colin Clouts Come Home Againe’ and The Faerie Queene IV.vii in colonial context,” is similar to Nohrnberg’s in that it explores language and motifs that circulate between Ralegh’s and Spenser’s poetry; like Nohrnberg, Herron uncovers instances where Spenser’s and Ralegh’s poems are more entangled with each other than we have previously recognized—for example, Herron makes a compelling case that we should not only read Timias as the disfavored courtier, but also read Timias as Ralegh the Irish colonialist. Herron examines the circulation of shared colonial motifs, though primarily those that reflect the authors’ views of Ireland. Herron rightly asks us to remember Ralegh’s investments in colonizing Ireland; too often scholars only remember Ralegh’s travels to and investments in the Americas. Although I found Herron’s readings of poetic images in The Ocean to Cynthia as expressly Irish rather than more generally colonial a bit strained at times, his larger point, that scholars would do well to pay more attention to the Irish presence in Ralegh’s work, remains convincing.        

In “‘Bellphebes course is now observde no more’: Ralegh, Spenser, and the literary politics of the Cynthia holograph,” Anna Beer examines the four poems in the Hatfield manuscript: “If Synthia be a Queene, a princes, and supreame,” “My boddy in the walls captive,” “The 21th and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia,” and “The end of the boockes, of Oceans love to Scinthia, and the beginninge of the 22 boock, entreatinge of Sorrow.” The manuscript, Beer argues, “probes the identity not only of the Queen but also that of its author. Self (Ocean) and other (Scinthia) are conflated in a poetic world in which the one cannot be separated from the other” (142). Beer then goes on to show that the poems in the manuscript critique Spenser’s allegorical representations of Ralegh’s life and person; she nicely reveals that Ralegh was aware of, yet not always happy with, how he was represented in Spenser’s poetry.

Hannibal Hamlin’s “Replying to Raleigh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply’: Allusion, anti-pastoral, and four centuries of pastoral invitations” concerns Ralegh’s relationship to Marlowe rather than to Spenser. Noting that from the seventeenth century forward Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepard to his Love” has almost always been anthologized alongside Ralegh’s “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepard,” he asserts that Ralegh’s and Marlowe’s poems together established a new subgenre: a dialogue with a pastoral invitation and an anti-pastoral reply. He also suggests that Ralegh’s reply is at least as influential to later poets as Marlowe’s invitation poem. Hamlin provides an impressive catalogue of poets inspired by Ralegh, some imitating him, and others replying to his reply. Indeed, it is a vast and diverse list, from poems by well-known figures (Donne, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Frost, and William Carlos Williams, for example), to lesser-known ones, like the anonymous Restoration poem, “Come live with me and be my Whore,” which incorporates Raleghesque critique into the invitation. Hamlin shows us just how influential Ralegh is as a poet. 

I will now jump ahead to chapter 10, the final essay on Ralegh’s poetry in the collection. Gary Waller’s “Ralegh’s ‘As You Came from the Holy Land’ and the rival virgin queens of late sixteenth-century England” asks us to consider why Ralegh might have written a poem (assuming he wrote the poem) patterned after the Our Lady of Walsingham ballade tradition. Ballades in this tradition recount the tale of a lover who asks a pilgrim if he has seen his beloved, who has not returned from a pilgrimage to Walsingham. In Waller’s summation, the ballades are about searching for and desiring what is lost, and the loss is multiplied by the fact that the shrine at Walsingham was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII. Waller offers that Ralegh appropriates the double sense of loss that the poem would have conveyed to contemporary readers; Ralegh is the lover who has lost his beloved, Queen Elizabeth, who herself is equated with the absent Virgin Mary, whom she herself supplanted in the national imagination.   

The other seven essays examine Ralegh’s prose writings and his legacy. Michael Booth’s essay on The History of the World uses cognitive theory to unpack a dense system of metaphors—including water as a metaphor—in the text. Lowell Duckert, too, is interested in Ralegh’s relationship with water, which, he asserts, results not only from its homophonic relation to Walter but also from the vast amount of time Ralegh spent on the Atlantic and on rivers in Guiana; he argues that the meandering pathways of the Orinco influence the rhetorical style of the Discoverie of Guiana. Alden T. Vaughan’s essay on Harriot’s Brief and True Report and Ralegh’s Discoverie highlights the fact that Harriot and Ralegh describe native peoples and their cultures in much greater detail than their contemporaries, and thus they might be considered the first English ethnographers. Vaughan also offers compelling evidence that Harriot and Ralegh must have consulted native peoples in order to gather the specific cultural information that they include in their texts. In his essay, Andrew Hiscock highlights that Ralegh wrote extensively on the topic of war, and that while Ralegh understood the necessity of war in realpolitik, he did not ignore the fact that many innocent people suffer during times of war. Hiscock also suggests that Ralegh’s interest in war may have resulted from his military involvement fighting for Huguenot causes. Judith Owens’s essay explores Ralegh’s treatment of patrimony in the Discoverie, his portrait with his son, and his Instructions to a Son. Vivienne Westbrook’s essay uncovers just how diversely Ralegh has been represented in art, advertisement, and popular media. The final essay, by Susan Campbell Anderson, examines Hollywood representations of Ralegh, focusing on how film representations of the relationship between Ralegh and Elizabeth express contemporary anxieties about the roles of women. The collection concludes with a bibliography compiled by Armitage of work on Ralegh published between 1986 and 2010, updating the editor’s Sir Walter Ralegh, An Annotated Bibliography [1576-1986].

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, some readers may question the large role that Ralegh’s biography plays in interpretations of his poems. Despite Erickson’s warning that “readers should certainly be wary of collapsing fiction into biography,” at times various essays seem to do just this. Nohrnberg’s statement, “Raleigh’s verses are abject poetical confessions of the distraught courtier’s despair,” may be an example of this. To be fair, however, the phrase “poetical confessions” is important because it suggests differences between a poetical confession and a “real” one, even if such differences are not explicitly articulated or consistently maintained. At the heart of the issue is the very relationship between role and author that Armitage, Herron, and Lethbridge establish in their introduction, how literary critics read the complex connections between the author and the role, or between the author’s self-expression and literary convention or experimentation. Nonetheless, the collection provides important new insights into Ralegh’s writings and his legacy, and Spenserians will gain a much fuller appreciation of how Spenser’s and Ralegh’s poems converse with each other.


Dennis Austin Britton
University of New Hampshire


[1] The spelling of the name (Ralegh/Raleigh) varies from contributor to contributor in the volume.


  • Deerfield Beach Towing Company 4 months, 1 week ago

    In this review I will focus on essays concerning Ralegh’s poetry and his relationship with Spenser and briefly describe the topics of the other essays.

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Dennis Austin Britton, "Christopher M. Armitage, ed. Literary and Visual Ralegh," Spenser Review 44.2.39 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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