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

§ 4. Guiana

It was partly his natural love of adventure, partly his desire to regain the favour at court which he had temporarily lost, that led Ralegh to undertake his first expedition to Guiana, in 1595. When he returned, full of tales of what he had seen, his enemies attempted to cast discredit on him by asserting that he had never been to Guiana at all. To defend himself, he at once wrote an account of his Discovery of the large, rich and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great, and golden city of Manoa. This appeared in 1596, with a dedication to “my singular good Lord and kinsman Charles Howard and to the Rt. Hon. Sir Robt. Cecil”; in which Ralegh says that in his discourse he has “neither studied phrase, forme, nor fashion.” The simple story of his stirring adventures, told in pure and nervous English, won immediate popularity, and was translated into German, Dutch and Latin, running through many editions. His sentences are long and sometimes involved, but he tells his story admirably and his adventures live, whilst his descriptions of scenery are graceful and attractive, and he urges the advantages of the colonisation of Guiana in glowing and eloquent words. His allusions to the tales that the natives told him of tribes of Amazons, and other strange beings, led Hume to characterise his whole narrative as “full of the grossest and most palpable lies”; a criticism which his most careful editor, Sir Robert Schomburgh, who has himself visited Guiana, says “we can now regard with a smile.” Besides these two tracts, nothing was published by Ralegh during the reign of Elizabeth, though one or two of his letters, especially that written to Robert Cecil on the death of his wife, in 1596, and the one giving A relation of the Cadiz Action, in the same year, well deserve to be counted amongst literary productions. In the letter to Cecil, we find these fine words:

  • The minde of man is that part of God which is in us, which, by how mich is it subject to passion, by so mich it is farther from Hyme that gave it us. Sorrows draw not the dead to life, but the livinge to death.
  • Ralegh’s life of stir and adventure, his enjoyment and hope of court favour, all came to an end with the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I. He found himself, only just reprieved from the scaffold, a prisoner in the Tower, the victim of the prejudice and suspicions of the king. Conscious of the falseness of the accusation of treason upon which he had been convicted, still full of schemes of active enterprise and, especially, of the idea that he would be able to win for England a possession of boundless wealth in Guiana, he could not, at first, believe that his captivity would last. But, as his hopes of a speedy release slowly passed away, it became more and more necessary for him to use his energies in work of some kind. For the most part, the conditions of his captivity were not rigorous. He had rooms in the Bloody Tower, with sufficient accommodation to enable his wife and son to be with him. His friends visited him freely. His rooms opened out on a terrace, where he could take exercise, and below was a little garden, where he was allowed to turn a former hen-house into a laboratory for the chemical experiments in which he delighted. At first, it was to his scientific studies that he devoted most of his time. But he also wrote a great deal. Prince Henry, the promising eldest son of James I, was a great admirer of Ralegh and declared that no one but his father would keep such a bird in such a cage. He was only a boy of nine when Ralegh was committed to the Tower, but he had always loved the society of those older than himself, and, as time went on, he consulted Ralegh on many points that interested him, especially on naval and military matters. Several of the papers which Ralegh wrote in the Tower were composed specially for prince Henry. Among others, there is a treatise called Observations concerning the Royal Navy and Sea Service, which is full of interest as throwing light on the condition of the ships by means of which the great Elizabethan seamen carried out their famous exploits. When there was a proposal, very distasteful to prince Henry, to arrange a marriage between him and a daughter of the house of Savoy, Ralegh wrote a vigorous treatise in which he clearly pointed out the disadvantages of the match. It was also for prince Henry that he planned his greatest work, The History of the World.