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

§ 6. Political Writings

None of the political treatises written by Ralegh during his imprisonment were printed during his lifetime. The Prerogative of Parliaments, written in 1615, was circulated in manuscript copies and was presented to James I. In spite of the usual adulatory preface, James was much displeased by this treatise, which, in the form of a dialogue between a counsellor of state and a justice of the peace, demonstrates the advantage of raising money through parliament, instead of by benevolences and other exceptional means. For his day, at least, Ralegh’s views were liberal—at any rate they were too liberal for James I. The Prerogative of Parliaments was not printed till ten years later, at “Midelburge.” The manuscript of The Cabinet Council, a treatise on state-craft, passed into the hands of Milton, and was by him published in 1658. Its numerous quotations from the classics show the wide range of Ralegh’s reading, and the treatment of the subject, as well as many allusions, shows his intimate acquaintance with the writings of Machiavelli. The Maxims of State is a shorter treatise of somewhat the same kind, wise and sensible enough, but, on the whole, it cannot be said that there is any distinctive flavour or charm of style about these two treatises. Ralegh’s lack of humour gives a certain heaviness to his moral and political writings. They are wanting in terse and epigrammatic sayings, and give us the sense of being almost too wise. We are tempted, as we read, to think that he followed too closely his own precept, quoted in a paper called The Loyal Observer, printed in the Harleian Miscellanies, “It is an observation of judicious Ralegh ‘Nothing is more an enemy to wisdom than drollery and over sharpness of conceit.’” Ralegh’s papers dealing with naval and military affairs, such as A Discourse on War in General and Observations on the Navy and Sea Service, are much more living and full of interest, as written by a man having close personal acquaintance with what he is writing about. A paper on Trade and Commerce shows that he had studied modern conditions with the same care as the history of the past. In the paper on A war with Spain we have an interesting study of the relative strength of the European powers at that time, bringing out the great importance of the Dutch as a maritime power.

In all these occasional papers, we have constant evidence of Ralegh’s wide knowledge, and of the way in which he had his knowledge at his command. Always there is a remarkable freedom in the use of historical allusions and illustrations.

The growing interest in Ralegh after his death led to the issue of various collections of his shorter papers. The most popular of these collections was The Remains of Sir Walter Ralegh, which first appeared in 1651, and of which there are many subsequent editions, varying slightly in their contents. Another interesting sign of the popular feeling for him was a little tract of six pages, which appeared in 1644, called To-day a man, To-morrow none, or Sir Walter Rawleigh’s Farewell to his Lady with his advice concerning Her and her Sonne. Besides this last letter to his wife, the tract contains the beautiful lines beginning “Like hermit poor,” and the striking poem found in his Bible in the gate-house at Westminster, written on 28 October, 1618, the night before his execution.