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Poetry Bee Blog #16 Walter Raleigh

Updated: Feb 9


The epithet or name “Renaissance Man” is used to describe anyone who shows talent in many disciplines. The word comes from the apparent fact that many who lived during the Renaissance Period (16th and 17th centuries) were multitalented. Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1552 – 1618) was one of them. He was a court nobleman, poet, soldier, navigator and explorer.

    Born in Devon (a county in southwest England), Raleigh spent some time in Ireland, taking part in the suppression of rebellions. Later he became a landlord of properties taken from the Irish rebels. A favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, he was knighted in 1585. Many know the story of Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak over mud so that the Queen could pass over without getting her royal self dirty. The story apparently originated with Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century historian, but modern historians doubt the truth of the charming legend. It’s a nice story anyway, even if it isn’t true.

    In 1591 Raleigh secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, a lady-in-waiting of Queen Elizabeth. One did not marry without the Queen’s permission, as any noble alliance might threaten the line of succession, and so Raleigh and his wife were sent to the Tower of London, the nobleman’s prison.  He was eventually freed, and Raleigh moved to the southern county of Dorset.

   The first colony in America, settled by Raleigh, was called Virginia, after the virgin Queen Elizabeth, from whom he received a royal patent to settle the colony. It did not succeed at first, but Raleigh returned to England with two things that became extremely important to Europe: the potato, which he taught his men to grow on his lands in Ireland, and tobacco. The weed frightened people at first when they saw men smoking it, but the pernicious habit spread. James I hated Raleigh’s “gift” to England so much that in 1604 he wrote a book about it, titled, A Counterblaste to Tobacco. James was really ahead of his time. In the book he describes tobacco as being “A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the Nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” Perhaps his violent hatred of the weed actually had a part to play in their stormy relationship.

    The Spaniards hated Sir Walter Raleigh because in the days of Elizabeth he had captured their treasures, and encouraged the English to settle in America, which the they thought no one should do but themselves. When James I first became king, Raleigh’s name was mixed up in a plot against the government and he was imprisoned in the Tower. He was kept there for many years and tried to make the time pass more quickly by writing a history of the world. But he grew very tired of prison, and after he had been there thirteen years, knowing that James I was always in need of money, he told people that he knew of a rich gold mine up the river Orinoco, in South America. He said that if the King would let him, he would go there in search for it, and that with its gold James I might become the richest king in Europe.

    When James I heard this, he agreed to let Raleigh go, but told him that he must not harm a single Spaniard. So Raleigh set sail. When he came to the mouth of the Orinoco he was too ill to go up the river and look for the mine himself, so he sent his son with one of the most trusted sailors, Keymis. They came upon a Spanish village, which they seized and plundered, and in the fight young Raleigh was killed. After this Keymis did not look for the mine any more, but came back to the ship. Raleigh, in his disappointment, spoke so angrily to Keymis that he in despair went into the cabin and shot himself. Then Raleigh had to go back to England without having found the mine. The Spaniards were very angry that his men had attacked their village, and to please them James I consented to punish Raleigh. He was taken prisoner when he landed in England, and soon after beheaded. After he was allowed to see the axe that would behead him, he said, “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.” Thomas More, chancellor to Henry VIII, had a similarly strange sense of humor when he was about to be executed at the gallows. When the poor pious man was on his way to be hanged, he said in so many words, “Help me up. I can take care of myself on the way down.” 


    Critics such as C.S. Lewis greatly respect Raleigh for his strong English verse. One of the poet’s most famous works, titled “the Lie,” shows the direct and undecorated style that C.S. Lewis talks about. The poem deals with the need for making bold and genuine assessments of life. The following few stanzas are from the poem:


Go, soul, the body's guest,

     Upon a thankless errand;

Fear not to touch the best;

     The truth shall be thy warrant:

           Go, since I needs must die,

           And give the world the lie.


Say to the court it glows

     And shines like rotten wood,

Say to the church it shows

     What's good, and doth no good:

           If church and court reply,

           Then give them both the lie.


Tell potentates, they live

     Acting, by others' action;

Not lov'd unless they give;

     Not strong, but by affection.

           If potentates reply,

           Give potentates the lie.


Tell men of high condition,

     That manage the estate,

Their purpose is ambition;

     Their practice only hate.

           And if they once reply,

           Then give them all the lie.

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