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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

ralegh’s poems ralegh poem

Ralegh’s literary works, like his life, are diverse and, by and large, occasional pieces, written for specific purposes. In this respect, it is important to note that the roles of courtier, planter, and explorer were in no way distinct from his role as poet.

Ralegh’s reputation as an esteemed poet makes me rue the fact that relatively few of his poems still exist. Establishing the canon of Ralegh’s lyric poems is a major critical problem: during his lifetime few poems were published under his name; while scores of anonymous poems were attributed to him in Renaissance collections (both printed and in manuscript), only five poems are in his own handwriting. Many poems traditionally attributed to Ralegh have been excluded from the canon by recent scholars, Michael Rudick and Steven May being among the most severe. The excluded poems include some of the best-known “Ralegh” poems: “Like to a Hermite poore in place obscure” ( The Phoenix Nest , 1593), a melancholy sonnet that became the lyrics to one of the most popular songs of the seventeenth century, and “The Nimphs reply to the Sheepheard,” a companion poem to Christopher Marlowe’s “The passionate Sheepheard to his love” (both printed in England’s Helicon , 1600). “Ralegh’s” nymph, playing the part of the Petrarchan lady, responds stoically to the seduction speech of Marlowe’s Petrarchan shepherd, literalizing the shepherd’s idealistic love metaphor and making the seducer’s appeal seem faintly silly. In so doing, “Ralegh” suggests that love (or at least the possibility for love) lies outside the realm of the Petrarchan ideal.

The sober tone of “Ralegh’s” reply to Marlowe’s poem lies under much of his verse: as Yvor Winters observed, Ralegh is a serious poet. The point becomes clear in “What is our life?” The short poem, probably written during imprisonment, builds on the world-as-stage conceit, describing human life as “this short Comedy.” Yet Ralegh makes literal the conceit when he carries human life into death, the grave being the final curtain. Doing so, he reveals the shortcoming of the conceit, concluding that, unlike the stage, life’s final curtain is forever. “To praise thy life,” an elegy on Sir Philip Sidney,* a political ally, if not a friend, also employs the stage conceit to emphasize the limits of mortality. Here Ralegh finds consolation in the belief that Sidney’s “soule and spright enrich the heauens aboue.”

Ralegh wrote two very different commendatory poems to Edmund Spenser’s* The Faerie Queene . The first places Spenser’s poem in the context of literary history; the other, in the context of Elizabethan court politics. “Methought I saw the graue, where Laura lay” is one of the finest sonnets in the English language and promotes Spenser and The Faerie Queene as the world’s ultimate literary achievement. Ralegh’s sonnet presents a dream allegory, which, in turn, introduces the person of “the Faery Queene:/At whose approach the soule of Petrarke wept.” The speaker suggests that Spenser at once overgoes both Petrarch and Homer and brings together the traditions of love poetry and heroic poetry that they, respectively, represent. Steven May argues that Ralegh’s second commendatory poem, “The prayse of meaner wits this worke like profit brings,” much less well wrought, was written in response to a poem by the earl of Essex, as part of a feud between the two men.

A group of four poems, often referred to as the Cynthia poems, exists in Ralegh’s own handwriting: “If Synthia be a Qveene, a princes, and svpreame,” “My boddy in the walls captived,” “Sufficeth it to yow my ioyes interred” (entitled “The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia”), and “My dayes delights” (entitled “The end of the bookes, of the Oceans love to Scinthia, and the beginninge of the 12 Boock, entreatinge of Sorrow”). The poems are undoubtedly parts of Ralegh’s poems to Queen Elizabeth, to which Edmund Spenser alludes in both The Faerie Queene and Colin Clouts Come Home Again . The third and fourth poems, at least, were likely written during Ralegh’s 1592 imprisonment. Whether Ralegh ever wrote, or even intended to write, other Cynthia poems is a matter of debate. “The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia” is the most important of the group and Ralegh’s longest poem (520 lines). Yet the poem is not narrative, despite the frequent use of epic simile, but lyric, a Petrarchan complaint addressed to Cynthia, who has absented herself from her faithful lover. The poem often is read as a thinly veiled complaint by Ralegh to Elizabeth about her mistreatment of him during his period of disfavor caused by the discovery of his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. Indeed, employing the Petrarchan metaphor of amorous combat with a female warrior, Ralegh writes,

Twelue yeares intire I wasted in this warr
twelue yeares of my most happy younger dayes,
butt I in them, and they now wasted ar
of all which past the sorrow only stayes. (120–23)

Yet Ralegh’s speaker, for all the pain his error has caused (imprisonment and disgrace), still feels compelled to seek forgiveness in order to continue his pursuit of power and glory.


Ralegh records his quest for power and glory much more explicitly in the Guyana tracts and in accounts of his expedition up the Orinoco River, through the heart of the Spanish colonial empire, in search of the fabled El Dorado. The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596) was Ralegh’s most popular work, seeing numerous editions and translations into other languages during his lifetime. Discoverie opens with a lengthy description of Guyana, overviewing its location and the customs of its people, telling of its wealth and of the history of Spanish colonial exploitation. The middle part of the book is an account of the expedition itself, detailing the actual voyage up the Orinoco. Ralegh closes the book by calling for the English to colonize Guyana, noting that it would be an easy position to defend against the Spanish, while permitting the Spanish to get it first would be disastrous. Ralegh positions Guyana rhetorically as the place where England must take its stand in the New World against the Spanish colonizers, an elaboration of Ralegh’s anti-Spanish views. The book was popular in Ralegh’s lifetime due to his vivid descriptions of an Edenic paradise, on the brink of being ruined by the Spanish. Today the book is seen to exhibit the exuberance of the English colonial enterprise as it set into gear in the later sixteenth century. The failure of the voyage itself seems not to have bothered sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readers anymore than it does modern readers.


Ultimate human failure forms the theme of Ralegh’s mammoth, magisterial, and uncompleted History of the World , which attempts to marry Christian and classical traditions in an account of the rise and fall of great empires, from the world’s beginning (Genesis, naturally) through the establishment of the Roman Empire. The stories follow the pattern of a ruler’s rise to power through divine providence and fall through human folly. Written during Ralegh’s imprisonment, after his 1603 treason conviction, as an educational treatise for Prince Henry, King James’ son and heir, the History is perhaps the ultimate achievement in the genre of universal history; Ralegh’s preface, which outlines the principles governing its writing, may be the finest statement of English historiography in the early Stuart period. Even while emphasizing divine providence as the first cause in human history and always subordinating the work of classical historians to the authority of the Bible, Ralegh displays a remarkable capacity to evaluate and choose among differing sources.


By the time of the English civil war, The History of the World came to be seen as a Puritan handbook, in part due to its providential interpretation of history but also due to its attention to the falls of tyrants, often read as an implicit critique of the autocratic Stuart monarchy, first King James and, by extension, his son, Charles I. The degree to which Ralegh intended and James read such critique is a matter of debate. While Ralegh repeatedly decries tyranny, and the book’s first edition (1614) was printed anonymously, and copies were confiscated by the government, it is also clear that James later (1616) sold the confiscated books and retained the proceeds for himself. For his part, Ralegh claims not to address contemporary affairs, noting the dangers of so doing: “[W]hosoever in writing a modern History, shall follow truth too near its heels, it may happily strike out his teeth.” Ralegh’s express denial, of course, might well indicate that his aim was indeed directed at King James. </p

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