The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

III. Sir Walter Ralegh

§ 1. Cynthia and other poems

NOTHING, perhaps, is more remarkable with regard to Sir Walter Ralegh’s literary career than the fact that a man of his nature should have won for himself a place in the history of letters. He was, pre-eminently, a man of action, a man who loved the stir and bustle of life, the excitement of adventure; and his proud, ambitious character made him keen to play a foremost part in the affairs of the world. But his intellectual activity was as great as his physical energy. Neither his mind nor his body could rest. All the periods of enforced leisure in his life he used for study or writing; yet the chance of an active enterprise could always win him away from his books.

At the age of 14 or 15, Ralegh, who was born in 1552, at Hayes Barton, Budleigh, Devon, went to Oxford, where he stayed for about three years. According to Anthony à Wood, “he became the ornament of the juniors, and a proficient in oratory and philosophy.” He passed from Oxford quickly to seek more stirring adventures in the Huguenot army in France. But, wherever he went, he was gathering knowledge. Sir Robert Naunton says “he was an indefatigable reader, whether by sea or land, and none of the least observers both of men and the times.” On his sea voyages, he took always a trunk of books with him, and spent the long hours, when he had nothing to divert him, in reading. He is said, by an early biographer, to have slept but five hours, so as to gain daily four hours for reading. His knowledge of literature helped, no doubt, to give him that command of words, that incisive way of stating a question which called Elizabeth’s attention to him when he discussed Irish affairs over the council table with lord Grey. He had, says Naunton, “a strong natural wit and a better judgment, with a bold and plausible tongue, whereby he could set out his parts to the best advantage.” He retained a decided Devonshire accent all his life; but his parliamentary speeches were distinguished by good style and pointed utterance. He seems to have shown a tendency towards liberal views. In a debate about the Brownists, in 1583, he spoke against religious persecution. But his was neither the speech nor the nature by which a man wins ready popularity, for in everything, though he showed himself a lover of liberty, he showed, also, his proud and contemptuous character. Perhaps that proud and contemptuous character showed itself also in the extravagance of the language of compliment and adulation with which he addressed Elizabeth. Such language was fashionable at the time, but it seems strange in the mouth of a man like Ralegh, and we are inclined to think that it was his ambition and desire to get on which made him put no limit to his exaggeration, in scornful contempt of the vanity that could be pleased by such language.

That Ralegh must have early been known as a writer of occasional verse is shown by the fact that he contributed some introductory verses, In commendation of the Steel Glass, to George Gascoigne’s satire, published in 1576. In these lines he describes Gascoigne’s poems in one of his concise, pointed phrases:

  • This medicine may suffice
  • To scorn the rest, and seek to please the wise.
  • Elizabethan poets appear to have had little desire to see their works in print. They wrote to please their friends, or for their own delight, not for the general public. Their poems were passed about in manuscript or read to their friends, and then might, perhaps, find their way into some of the popular miscellanies of verse. Few of Ralegh’s poems appeared with his name during his lifetime, and it was long after his death before any attempt was made to identify or collect his scattered verses. Some of them had appeared in England’s Helicon with the signature “Ignoto,” and it was, in consequence, at first assumed that all the poems so signed in that collection were his. More critical examination has rejected many of these, and Hannah’s carefully edited collection, published in 1892, gives some thirty pieces which have reasonably been supposed to be Ralegh’s. These are enough to justify fully the judgment passed on him in Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie, “For dittie and amourous ode I find Sir Walter Ralegh’s vein most lofty, insolent and passionate.”

    Ralegh seems, at many crises in his life, to have sought expression for his feelings in verse. When, after his rapid rise to favour at court, he was driven into temporary disgrace by the jealousy of Essex, he employed himself in composing a long elegy expressing his devotion to Elizabeth, and his despair at her anger, in which he addressed the queen as Cynthia. We hear of this poem first in Spenser’s verses Colin Clout’s Come Home Again. During this temporary disgrace, Ralegh revisited Ireland, where he had served some years before. There, he either began or renewed at Kilcolman his friendship with Spenser, then lord Grey’s secretary. The poets seem to have passed some delightful days in reading their verses to one another. Spenser says of Ralegh in Colin Clout:

  • His song was all a lamentable lay
  • Of great unkindnesse, and of usage hard
  • Of Cynthia the Ladie of the Sea,
  • Which from her presence faultlesse him debard.
  • Ralegh’s delight in The Faerie Queene led him, as soon as he was restored to favour, to introduce Spenser at court. Spenser, in his turn, was full of admiration of Ralegh’s work and wrote:

  • Full sweetly tempered is that Muse of his
  • That can empierce a Princes’ mightie hart.
  • He returns to it again in the beautiful sonnet addressed to Ralegh which appeared attached to The Faerie Queene, where he says that, compared with Ralegh’s, his rimes are “unsavory and sowre,” and concludes:

  • Yet, till that thou thy Poeme wilt make knowne,
  • Let thy fair Cinthias praises be thus rudely showne.
  • Cynthia was never published; we do not know that it was ever presented to Elizabeth. It was thought to be entirely lost, when a fragment of it was discovered among the Hatfield MSS. and first printed by Hannah in 1870. This fragment is entitled The twenty-first and last book of the Ocean to Cynthia. Spenser used to call Ralegh “The Shepherd of the Ocean,” and, hence, Ralegh took to calling himself “the Ocean.” Hannah published this fragment as A continuation of the lost poem Cynthia, and imagined that it was composed during Ralegh’s imprisonment in the Tower under James I. But it has been conclusively shown that it must be a portion of the earlier poem. If the other twenty books were of the same length as this canto, the whole poem must have consisted of ten to fifteen thousand lines. It is written in four-lined stanzas, alternately rimed. Judging from the fragment that remains, there appears to have been no action or narrative in this long poem, yet Gabriel Harvey describes the part of it which he saw before 1590 as “a fine and sweet invention.” There are many fine passages, none finer than the line

  • Of all which past the sorrow only stays.
  • The stately, dignified sonnet by Ralegh, which was appended to the first edition of The Faerie Queene, in 1590, is worthy of an age when the sonnet attained rare distinction. Brydges, the first editor of a collection of Ralegh’s poems, says:

  • Milton had deeply studied this sonnet, for in his compositions of the same class, he has evidently more than once the very rhythm and construction, as well as cast of thought of this noble though brief composition.
  • Other of the poems by Ralegh show more of the impetuous and daring spirit which was compelled to find an utterance. The ringing scorn of “The Lie” depicts the man who knew from personal experience courts and their meanness. The disenchantment with life expressed in several of his poems led to the assumption that they were written on the night before his death; but of only one can this be true, the fine lines found in his Bible at the gate-house, Westminster:

  • Even such is time, that takes on trust
  • Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
  • And pays us but with earth and dust.
  • The others, such as Like Hermit Poor, and The Pilgrimmage, were, probably, written at moments when his impatient spirit was filled with disgust of life. No poem of his has greater charm than The Pilgrimmage, whether for its form, its fancy, or for the deep seriousness underlying its light grace. Among the authenticated poems of Ralegh there are few love poems, and those few are singularly free from sentimentality or the precious conceits popular at the time. In his reply to Marlowe’s song The passionate Shepherd to his Love, he by no means responds to the passion of the appeal, but shows his disbelief in the possibility of the permanence of the shepherd’s love in a world full of fears of “cares to come.”