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The Courtier Poets: Sir Walter Ralegh

Updated on April 10, 2018
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I can't seem to stop writing poetry or reading poetry. I think it is safe to say I love poetry and I love sharing great poetry with others.

A Man of Myth

Sir Walter Ralegh is perhaps on of the most remembered of all the courtier poets. His life resembled a life lived by greek heroes of greek myth. His story is still retold today to a popular audience.

He was a soldier, sailor, colonizer, poet, historian, and courtier. Queen Elizabeth adored him and for many years his success in her court could not be rivaled.

Like many heroes Sir Walter Ralegh was born into moderate means. He attended Hayes Baton in Devonshire and was the son of a country gentlemen. There is proof that he attended Oriel College in Oxford but did not obtain a degree.

The challenges of war seemed to call to him as he found himself fighting with the Huguenots in France. Similar to the story of "Illiad" and "The Odyssey" we see him leaving the war as a sailor to find himself.

After returning home to England he fought the Irish Campaign with Lord Grey.

He achieved great honor from his military career and became the advisor to the Queen in the year 1585. During his stay in office he was knighted, appointed a patent to settle Virginia, and charged with the preparation of a war with Spain.

He was the Captain of the Guard during England's war with Spain and fought in Cadiz.

After he returned he found great fame and popularity in the court which lasted for many years until his duel with the Duke of Essex. His failure in the duel was the beginning of the downfall of Ralegh.

He was sent to the tower over the duel and stayed for quite awhile. When he left the tower Queen Elizabeth was leaving office and King James was moving in. King James had him returned to the tower.

He stayed at the tower, imprisoned with his family, for the rest of his life. During this time he wrote "The History of the World."

In 1618 he was beheaded for treason and the bravery he exhibited during his execution resonates with storytellers today.

From Mud to the Tower

The day before, the Queen appointed Sir Walter Ralegh as her advisor, it rained. Who would take advantage of this rain but Sir Walter Ralegh who had proven himself fearless when fighting with the Huguenots in France.

He had noticed directly after the rain had fallen not one member of court contemplated the fact that the Queen was wet. He quickly ran ahead of the members of the court he had discussed politics with earlier. He nodded as he ran past trying to be as polite as possible in his haste.

He foresaw this disaster as he foresaw enemy combat in the field and with the grace of trained soldier delivered his red cape under the feet of the Queen.

This one act of bravery and valor saved the Queen from the disaster of the puddle underneath. This one act also brought him favor from the Queen herself, a favor that would become a friendship.

A friendship that would make Sir Walter Ralegh a wealthy and successful man.

During the years that followed every path for fame and glory was paved with gold.

Until the Earl of Essex tried to remove him from his post, due to infidelity, and a duel ensued. Infidelity seems to have motivated political action since the time of Queen Elizabeth. Her name has even withstood the test of time, Elizabeth Thockmorton.

Ralegh lost the duel, his stature with the Queen, and his place in court.

This was our heroes first stay in the tower. A man who could not stay still and would carve on the stone his ideas if he had too. A man who fought off the loneliness and hopelessness of imprisonment by honing his wits.

He returned to court as Elizabeth's reign was at an end. James was next in line and he cleaned out the house of Queen Elizabeth. Most of her court ended up in the tower and Sir Walter Ralegh was sent back.

He used this time to remember his adventures as a sailor, his colonization of early spain and the America's, to write "The History of the World."

As great an achievement as any.

"An Epitaph upon the Right Honorable Sir Philip Sidney, Knight, Lord Governor of Flushing"

To praise thy life or wail thy worthy death,

And want thy wit, thy with high, pure, divine,

Is far beyond the power of the mortal line;

Nor any one hath that draweth breath.


Yet rich in zeal, though poor in learning's lore,

And friendly care obscured in secret breast,

And love that envy in thy life suppressed,

Thy dear life done, and death, hath double more.


And I, that in thy time and living state

Did only praise they virtues in my thought,

As one that, seeled, the rising sun hath sought,

With words and tears now wail they timeless fate.


Drawn was thy race aright from princely line,

Nor less than such, by gifts that nature gave

(The common mother that all creatures have),

Doth virtue show, and princely lineage shine.


A king gave thee thy name; a kingly mind,

That God thee gave, who found it now too dear

For this base world, and hath resumed it near

To sit in skies, and sort with powers divine.

...

A comparison of Ralegh"s "Epitaph..." and Greville

Sir Walter Ralegh was known for his straightforward description of things and place. He did not use colorful language and centered on rhythm and meter over lyrical phrasing.

His poems are still very witty and crafted with great skill but he breaks away from the lyrical phrase to center more on his direct intimate feelings.

He never met Sir Philip Sidney and probably had read Greville's "Epitaph.." Greville's "Epitaph..." was written by a grieving friend and was a delicately crafted use of Poulter's measure.

Ralegh had no interest in showing his skill at complicated form and was more interested in writing what was common at the time; Elizabethan Quatrains in iambic pentameter.

Ralegh had read and respected Sir Philip Sidney as a writer and a poet. His admiration led him to try his own hand at an epitaph for the man. Here we see perfect iambic pentameter in Elizabethan quatrains. He took as much pain as Greville to ensure perfection.

Outside of the prose in "History of the World" Ralegh practiced strict iambic pentameter and Elizabethan sonnets; abba abba cde cde.

Through him we see a changing definition of lyrical and what is considered a lyrical phrase. Ralegh took poetry down to its most intimate examination of self as his new definition of lyrical.

Farewell to the Court

Like ruthless dreams, so are my joys expired,

And past return are all my dandled days;

My love misled, and fancy quite retired--

Of all which passed the sorrow only stays.


My lost delights, now clean from sight of land,

Have left me all alone in unknown ways;

My mind to woe, my life in fortune's hand--

Of all which passed the sorrow only stays.

As in a country strange, without companion,

I only wail the wrong of death's delays,

Whose sweet spring spent, whose summer well-nigh done--

Of all which passed the sorrow only stays.


Whom care forewarns, ere age and winter cold,

To hast me hence to find my fortune's fold.

In Conclusion

Sir Walter Raleigh is perhaps on of the most remembered of all the courtier poets.

He achieved great honor from his military career and became the advisor to the Queen in the year 1585. During his stay in office he was knighted, appointed a patent to settle Virginia, and charged with the preparation of a war with Spain.

A man who could not stay still and would carve on the stone his ideas if he had too. A man who fought off the loneliness and hopelessness of imprisonment by honing his wits.

Through him we see a changing definition of lyrical and what is considered a lyrical phrase. Ralegh took the poetry down to its most intimate examination of self as his new definition of lyrical.



Text Referenced

"Five Courtier Poets of the English Renaissance," Blender M., Robert, Washington Square Press, 1969.

© 2018 Jamie Lee Hamann

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