Ralegh at 400
Allison Bigelow (University of Virginia)
On Monday, 20 August, 2018, students and protestors at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, looped ropes around the statue of Silent Sam and tore it down. Since 1913, the monument of a soldier who fought to preserve the confederacy – and, thus, the institution of slavery – had stood on the campus of the flagship university of the state, courtesy of a gift from the Daughters of the Confederacy. Less than 30 miles down the road, officials in the capitol city of Raleigh (named, of course, for Sir Walter Ralegh), attempted to condemn the removal of the statue without supporting the Lost Cause mythologies that undergird it.
Today, cities and towns throughout the Americas grapple with the weight of monuments and places named for the most brutal elements of our colonial pasts: racism, discrimination, white supremacy, conquest. Recent scholarship on Ralegh, as evidenced by histories like Alexander Haskell’s For God, King, and People (2018) and Nicholas Popper’s Walter Ralegh’s ‘History of the World’ (2012), as well as new editions of Ralegh’s Discoverie of Guiana (1596), carefully edited and contextualized by Joyce Lorimer (2007) and Benjamin Schmidt (2008), reveals a complex reckoning with a figure who was equal parts alchemist-colonist-poet, scholar-soldier-statesman. As these works suggest, Ralegh played a critical role in the making of the English empire in the New World, as he studied Iberian precedents to imitate and avoid. His legacy, then and now, is one whose meaning scholars continue to debate, four hundred years after his death.
The Sir Walter Ralegh Statue at Asheville Mall, North Carolina, July 1975.
Vivienne Westbrook (University of Western Australia)
2018 marks the anniversary of the execution of Sir Walter Ralegh in Old Palace Yard in 1618. This was the most important event of his life because it marked the beginning of four hundred years of an extraordinary afterlife during which he was attributed with achievements and qualities that would have been impossible for any mere mortal. Not the least of these achievements was his role as the founder of modern America in North Carolina, without ever visiting the place, and subsequently as the gentlemanly ambassador that was to forge bridges between Great Britain and its rebellious colonies in the post American War of Independence era. His feathered hat, cape and pipe marked an iconic silhouette recognisable across the world as Sir Walter – a reassuring shorthand for all that was great about Renaissance English gentlemen courtiers, poets, soldiers, sailors, historians, and all that was bad about the tyrannical monarchy that had put a stop to him. He was represented in every media, from a postage stamp to a towering wooden sculpture. He remained within parliamentary debate till the end of the twentieth century and became the English messiah who almost single-handedly saved the country from the Spanish Armada in Kapur’s Elizabeth The Golden Age. An already astonishing talent demonstrated during his lifetime, Sir Walter’s abilities were to become infinite in variety in the four hundred years which followed.
Daniel Carey (National University of Ireland, Galway)
Ralegh’s outsized reputation in our time as much as his own relied on extravagant and unfufilled ambition. Stephen Greenblatt’s early attention to him portended the turn to self-fashioning as an explanatory phrase for Renaissance careers predicated on rhetoric as much as action, but Ralegh remains a difficulty, not quite tragic and not quite comic, too famous to be ‘rediscovered’ yet never a decisive figure in the story (of verse, politics, history, exploration). Perhaps if his death had occurred in a more timely manner, not lingering in prison for so long before his execution, or if he had Napoleon-like emerged from captivity to achieve new triumphs, the reception would be different. Essex, as an historical actor, has a life with a more satisfying shape. Still, Ralegh holds our attention in ways that only happen when we can imagine the circumstances of someone’s life, whether in the Tower (where his rooms can still be visited) or offending Queen Elizabeth with his wedding or adventuring in Guiana. (Spenser, for all his greatness as a poet, enjoys no such advantage, and lives for the most part in his verse.)
The challenges associated with Ralegh were familiar enough to those who courted him as patron – was he a figure worthy of epic, as Richard Hakluyt magnified him in a dedication in 1587, a wooer of Virginia in the chaste terms of the marriage bond, or a failed exponent of settlement? Shepherd of the ocean and example of courtesy, or the roistering gallant who invited the sack of Guiana’s maidenhead? Ralegh remains an engaging study in contradictions.
Ralegh’s Paper Wars
Carlo M. Bajetta (Università delle Valle d’Aosta / Université de la Vallée d’Aoste)
Sir Walter Ralegh’s writings are very much the product of conflict. The result of his dazzling career at court in the 1580s was that he become ‘the best hated man in Court, city and Country – and many rejoiced when he was imprisoned in the Tower in 1592. This, in fact, was the culminating year of the ‘twelve yeares intire’ which Ralegh claimed he ‘wasted’ in his ‘war’ with Elizabeth (Ocean to Scinthia, lines 120-21). Poetic skirmishes (sometimes amicable, sometimes less so) are frequent in his early compositions (witness the epigram for Henry Noel), while outright battle is waged against Essex in some of the poems written in the 1580s/90s. ‘The Lie’ (which elicited responses from the Essex circle) and the second poem for Spenser’s Faire Queene (which Essex interpreted as being aimed at him, as one of the ‘meaner wits’ mentioned in it) were probably much of a sensation at Court at the time. ‘The Lie’ is known to survive in some forty manuscripts, and at least four versions exist of an answer to it.
It is no surprise that Ralegh’s first prose tract is about the last fight of the Revenge, a work which anticipates the temper of much of his non-poetic works: anti-Spanish, and frequently openly inciting to combat or conquest (as it is the case of the Guiana and maritime tracts). That Ralegh’s Jacobean phase was apparently more devoted to history (although a Discourse of War was penned in 1614-16) means, in fact, that Ralegh was still fighting. The Recusant tract (1611-12), the History of the World (1614), the Prerogative of Parliaments in England (1615) start the political war which he eventually won. To paraphrase G.M. Trevelyan’s famous sentence it was Ralegh’s writings (printed and/or disseminated in innumerable handwritten copies in the seventeenth century), not his ghost, that ‘pursued the House of Stuart to the scaffold’.
Mark Nicholls (University of Cambridge)
Biographers of Elizabethans must proceed cautiously, appreciating their engagement with a threadbare archival record and the imperfectly recounted, out-of-context asides of the long dead. As with Spenser, so even with the more prominent and better connected Sir Walter Ralegh. For all his comet-like trajectory across the dark skies of sixteenth-century England, our certain knowledge of this author, courtier, statesman, soldier, explorer, colonist, scientist and religious sceptic can be summarised very quickly, and we draw much of what we think we know about him from a surrounding tradition, an ‘afterlife’: from the fire in the comet’s tail.
Every age discovers in this way the Ralegh it admires – or at least connects to. The protestant, republican ‘martyr’ transforms into the brave sea captain, into the founder of an Anglophone New World, into the handsome, cloak-casting hero at the court of the Virgin Queen, into the mocker of established religion and even into the opportunistic womaniser, and the ‘stupid get’ of a Beatles song. In each transformation, some have seen in him the strengths, weaknesses and prejudices of a quintessential Englishman. But in these post-truth, fake news times, the nature of that ‘typical Englishman’ has changed. Turbulence, sedition and factionalism may again define him. Anger and scepticism run through politics and society. Narcissism is everywhere. Pretensions are picked apart. Patience is in short supply. Ralegh’s depressive, driven, savage, unforgiving character speaks to these moods: as more than one contemporary observed, he was a revenger, a self-promoter, a liar. How he would have relished Twitter and Facebook. There is something especially terrifying in the memory of Ralegh at his execution on that October morning four centuries past, imprinting his fury on other minds, pacing the scaffold, refusing to reconcile in any meaningful sense with those who engineered his death. In 1618 he is the angry old man, denouncing unprincipled government and a craven foreign policy. Can we read the bleak, beautiful last lines to his History of the World in the way we read them twenty years ago?
Ralegh the Poet
Gordon Braden (University of Virginia)
Ralegh had a reputation as a poet during his own lifetime, but did nothing to cultivate that legacy. His poems come down to us severally and randomly, sometimes in widely variant versions, in manuscript and print, and there was no serious collecting of them until the nineteenth century. Questions of authorship for individual pieces are beyond resolving. But there are poems, and parts of poems, that stick in the mind in a distinctive way, touchstones of an interior bleakness that may or may not have a place for Christian faith. The sceptical nymph who argues that the transience of youth and desire is reason not to enjoy them while we can has a kinship with the male Petrarchan lover who concludes with a vision of time repaying not just his coy beloved but himself and everyone else ‘but with age and dust’. Ralegh apparently repurposed the last stanza of that poem as one of several unforgettably unnerving poems on his own execution (there was more than one occasion to write them). His most ambitious poem, ‘The Ocean’s Love to Cynthia’, still awaiting the attention it deserves, was seemingly going to wed a Petrarchan love story to the emergence of England’s maritime empire; it might have been the defining epic of the Renaissance. What we actually have is from the last chapter, a vivid, unrelenting landscape of emotional and mental ruin, the poetic debris of a career of impassioned striving collapsed in upon itself.
Catherine Bates (University of Warwick)
Ralegh’s poetry has long struck critics as strangely modern, as if it did not quite fit the traditional categories of its time. The reader catches elements of satire, epigram, pastoral, elegy, and lyric within his verse, all of which are undoubtedly present but none of which entirely does justice to the way these intermingle to create strange new forms in defiance of any simple classification. Ralegh expresses his own praise for The Faerie Queene in similar terms: as a hybrid that combines epic and lyric into a genre that outdoes both and so makes Homer tremble and Petrarch weep. Something similar might be said of his own great poem ‘The Ocean to Cynthia’, with its heroic depiction of love’s labour lost, although Ralegh reserves nothing but dispraise for it and for his other productions, of which he is loudly self-critical even by the standards of the time. The Petrarchan lover is all too used to self-address, his beloved being typically unassailable or absent, but Ralegh’s ‘I’ repeatedly addresses itself to its various parts (‘my joys’, ‘my woes’, ‘my fancy’, ‘my mind’, ‘my conceit’, ‘my thoughts’, ‘my invention’), as if the ego were but a loose amalgam of mental and emotional faculties and no more consolidated than the fragmentary poem that, between them, those various parts produce. In this poem, ambiguously set on strand or shore, now land now sea, Ralegh explores the predicament of a speaking subject – a specifically masculine speaking subject – whose undoing by desire extends as far as the very writing project itself.
Cathy Shrank (University of Sheffield)
As a writer, Ralegh responds as occasion requires. He does not so much generate material as react to circumstance or others’ writings. His best-known, most-circulated poem, ‘If all the world and love were young’, wittily answers Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me’, artfully reworking lines, rhymes, and images, and – adopting the voice of the importuned woman – deflates the ‘honey[ed]’ promises of Marlowe’s shepherd with doses of sceptical realism. ‘Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay’ – movingly echoed in Milton’s sonnet to his dead wife – appears as a commendatory verse to Spenser’s Faerie Queene: the sort of writing generally produced by request. Ralegh’s ability as a strategic writer is further evident in his abrupt switch of style and genre between the reigns of the two monarchs under whom he lived. When in disgrace with Elizabeth and seeking to regain favour, Ralegh characteristically turned to lyric poetry, which reaches its apogee in The Ocean to Cynthia, with its savage twist on tropes of Petrarchan dismemberment and depiction of a pastoral landscape denuded of life. The works that Ralegh used to try to impress James I are ones of serious-minded prose: The History of the World and ‘A Dialogue between a Counsellor State and a Justice of the Peace’. The ODNB dismisses the latter as ‘often quite boring’. Its dullness is carefully calculated, however, allowing Ralegh to advertise his honesty, in daring to broach such a controversial topic, whilst downplaying the risks to royal authority of the cause – recalling parliament – that he promotes.
Judith Owens (University of Manitoba)
Long admired, Ralegh’s ‘A Vision upon this Conceipt of the Faery Queene’ provides a versatile key to Spenser’s epic-romance because it can be turned readily to the critical preoccupations of the day. If in recent decades this sonnet has directed us to the courtly power structures, including Petrarchan, within which both Spenser and Ralegh manoeuvred, today it invites attention to affective dynamics. Attention to this dimension of the commendatory sonnet, and of Ralegh’s works in general, is warranted on grounds other than simply critical trends: such attention highlights ways in which private and public imperatives intersect in many of Ralegh’s works, while to trace the affective dimension of ‘A Vision’ is to be alerted to dynamics in The Faerie Queene that have remained under-remarked.
‘A Vision’ is freighted with strong feeling: Petrarch ‘wept’ (7); stones ‘were seen to bleed’ (11); ghosts ‘groan[ed]’ (12); Homer trembled in ‘grief’ and acrimony (13-14). These emotional reactions are precipitous, prompted by the Faery Queene’s appearing ‘suddenly’ on the scene in Ralegh’s imagined pilgrimage to the grave of Petrarch’s Laura. The upheaval is formal as well as imagistic, registered in line treatment and prosody. The disturbance is, finally, epistemological: what had been reassuringly enshrined in thought and literary tradition bursts forth, demanding reappraisal, reconfiguration. The dramatic affective dynamics of Ralegh’s commendatory poem cue readers of The Faerie Queene, not simply to admire Spenser’s monumental achievement, but also to recognise Spenser’s abiding concern with how strong feeling informs the work of building a commonwealth.
Staging Walter Ralegh?
Claire Jowitt (University of East Anglia)
Anna Beer persuasively argues that Walter Ralegh was the key individual who the Stuart state was unable ‘to silence’. Some of this noisiness in life and death is evident in dramatic characters who allegorise his personality and experiences. The fugitive Young Forrest, who secures his pardon from Queen Elizabeth by bringing two notorious pirates to justice in Thomas Heywood and William Rowley’s Fortune by Land and Sea, which has recently been re-dated by Martin Wiggins to 1619-26 (from 1607-9), is one such example.
The play never mentions Ralegh directly, but Young Forrest faces Ralegh-like execution (‘I dare not trust my native country with my forfeit life’). Young Forrest escapes execution by receiving a royal pardon, not from James I but from Elizabeth I, who rewards him for his exploits (‘she styl’d me with the Order of Knighthood’) and offers future preferment (‘promise of employments of more weight’).
The pirates Purser and Clinton’s execution speeches are powerful pieces of anti-Stuart propaganda. To secure Young Forrest’s pardon, they must be punished, but their ‘gallant spirits’, who have ‘made Armadoes fly before our stream’, are lost to the nation. Accounts of Ralegh’s dignified deportment at his execution strike similar notes. Even the executioner was affected: ‘the fellowe was much daunted […] att his resolution and courage, in so much that Sir Walter Raleigh clapped him on his back divers times’. The resolution evident in the pirates’ speeches suggests that Young Forrest’s pardon should not be secured at their expense: all are serviceable men.
The similarities between Purser and Clinton and Young Forrest are compelling. All are fugitives with their ships operating indistinguishably. Like both Ralegh in Guiana in 1617-18 and the pirates, Young Forrest’s ship seizes Spanish possessions. Only when satiated with ‘many a rich prize from Spain’ does he capture the pirates. The inclusion of Purser and Clinton (executed 1583), situates the play’s action before the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1603, intensifying resemblances between their actions. Having killed a man, Young Forrest is just as much an outlaw as the pirates and they could seek their own pardon through his capture.
Young Forrest and the pirates are not oppositional; both appear indebted to Ralegh. Young Forrest expresses Ralegh-like antagonistic foreign policy at odds with James’s policy of Rex Pacificus. His reward by Elizabeth for amphibious aggression directly challenges Stuart policy. The punishment of the pirates for indistinguishable activities exposes inconsistencies in state justice and the shortsightedness of Stuart policies in the 1620s at a time of increasing diplomatic tension.
Rawlie at 400
Thomas Herron (East Carolina University)
“‘He was a liar’”, says the opening line of a biography. He had a nickname, ‘Raw lie’, and a famous poem, ‘The Lie’ (was it his poem?). Bluffer and adventurer, soldier, pirate, explorer, executioner, investor, seducer, social climber, historian, father, prisoner, adulterer, landowner, planter, poet and counsellor, much hated, the envy of the world.
Ralegh the Rorschach test for critics: what was he best at? He didn’t finish much, but he planted seeds (not the potato: another lie). He left behind a history for the world to wonder at. His verse at Hatfield is ‘typically unfinished, fractured and beautiful’, like his corpse on the scaffold spilling blood and precious gems (reportedly). Reckless Rawley the Devonshire Da Vinci: he moved in brilliant circles, was patronised by an enlightened monarch (jailed by another), combined art and science, wrote military treatises and was jack of all trades. But who would want him as a master?
He walked the walk of the Renaissance man. Stephen Greenblatt built his career on this supreme self-fashioner. Conferences and books are still dedicated to him. Yet we don’t know how to spell his name. Fluid like water, protean Rauley trapped the unwary in his boats; like Marinell, he lay wounded along the rich strond of the Thames,until his wife rescued his head and put it in a red leather bag. An aggressor, his impostures gave him and us a clear-eyed, cynical view of life. He rubbed the make-up off of Marlowe’s nymph, called Spenser a thief, declared that the court ‘shines like rotten wood’. His greatest lie was that he loved the Queen. Or did he? Like Satan, his discontented eye always sought the horizon.
He did not live in Myrtle Grove in Youghal: another myth. He brought capital to the colonies but his ventures all went up in smoke; he played the wag and left others holding the bag. But his lies inspired. His puffs on the pipe were white clouds on the western main. He shared a poetic balm with Spenser at Kilcolman. Who does not wish (s)he were there?
Nicholas Popper (College of William & Mary)
In 1859, assessing the thick strata of judgment concerning Walter Ralegh that had sedimented over the intervening centuries, the Darwinian Christian socialist novelist Charles Kingsley wrote, ‘no one can approach the history of the Elizabethan age…without finding that truth is all but buried under mountains of dirt and chaff—an Augean stable which, perhaps, will never be swept clean’. But Kingsley was not immune from such literary excretions, and he portrayed Ralegh as alternately a modern David and gallivanting imperial explorer, even as he bristled against the romantic and sentimental depictions he saw emanating from his fellow Victorians.
For someone whose initial public rise was the source of rampant derision and vituperation, Ralegh’s emergence as potent, even celebratory, symbol under the Stuarts was a stark reversal. In his last years and in following decades he became a Puritan and a royalist, a parliamentarian and an absolutist, a prophet and a flatterer. The recrudescence continued relentless into Kingsley’s age and beyond. In the twentieth century he was a non-doctrinal sceptic and a Cold War hardliner, exemplary Renaissance self-fashioner and indelible first man of modernity.
As this suggests, there is no essential Ralegh; his significance lies in articulating the poles of possibility conjured by his interpreters. Or maybe Isaac Disraeli had it right: ‘Rawleigh exercised in perfection incompatible talents, and his character connects the opposite extremes of our nature!’ What amassed in the stables has fertilised Raleigh’s multiplicities, and he has become a tested probe for exploring those extremes and their reconciliations, an object of infinite dimensions who we know by limning him in our own image.
Eric Klingelhofer (Mercer University)
Ralegh’s unique contribution to history was as contradictory as his character; Ralegh both initiated and terminated the most important polity of the Modern Age: the British Empire. With short-lived colonising successes in Ireland and North America, and dreamed-of empire in South America, the lessons learned by Ralegh would guide the future. True, he saw and sought the rewards of God, gold, and glory, but he also determined that colonies should be settled by English families. Significantly, colonists would share their New Worlds with indigenous populations and make important decisions by popular will. Manteo of the Croatan Algonquians was officially recognized as Lord of Roanoke, the first of an expected empire of converted Native American peers loyal to the English Crown. At the same time, Ralegh’s Roanoke colonists as a group, not solely the council of Assistants, decided who should return to England to plea for immediate assistance.
To Ralegh’s practice of political inclusivity was added his strong voice for parliamentary rights, his judgement of despots in History of the World, and his unjust death. Sir Walter the Coloniser became Ralegh the Martyr, nobly dying for representative government against tyrannical rule. Meeting in Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern, Virginian politicians agreed to demand the same liberties as Englishmen. The resulting conflict cost the British Empire its Thirteen Colonies and set an example for others to follow. Yet, more than any other global grouping of nations today, the English-speaking world conceived by Ralegh retains the principles of self-government. There could be no greater legacy.
Ralegh Studies: A Plea for a New Subject
Willy Maley (University of Glasgow)
Ralegh is a Renaissance man in need of a makeover. In the transition from Spenser to Milton, he should be a key figure, as important as Bacon. Instead, he’s a neglected one. The Oxford edition of his Works is almost two centuries old and as courtier-colonist Ralegh remains overshadowed by Spenser, fellow undertaker, junior partner, and smaller landowner in the Munster Plantation. The poet nominated Sheriff of Cork outshines the patron installed as Mayor of Youghal. A big wheel in the Spenser circle, Ralegh is an outlier in Irish studies. His involvement in the Smerwick Massacre deserves more notice. Thomas Herron’s excellent introduction to the 2009 edition of John Pope Hennessy’s Sir Walter Ralegh in Ireland (1883) argues for an approach as subtle as that of Yeats on Spenser. David Beers Quinn certainly saw Ralegh’s Irish experience as soldier-planter as crucial to his broader colonial activities. Conversely, Stephen Greenblatt’s exploration published the same year – 1973 – paid Ireland slight regard. Then along came Nicholas Canny and ‘Spenser and Ireland’ supplanted ‘Ralegh and Ireland’. Milton later saw in Ralegh another defender of parliament against crown as The Prerogative of Parliaments (1618), written for James I, was posthumously repackaged as anti-monarchical criticism. Forty years after Ralegh’s death, Milton, who drew on Ralegh’s History of the World as part of his Commonplace Book, published The Cabinet Council (1658), attributed to Ralegh, using the extracts from Bodin and Machiavelli to express his own ambiguity about the flagging English republic. Ralegh was a name to conjure with for Milton. I see no evidence of that fact in Milton studies. Addressing the reader, Milton ‘thought it a kinde of injury to withhold longer the work of so eminent an Author from the Publick’. I agree.