On this day in 1552 (or 1554), Walter Raleigh was born. You will note that I added no superlative as I usually do. Nor did I say why he is notable. This is because I don’t really know. I assume that he was a very charming guy. He was of reasonably high birth and he got in good with Queen Elizabeth. That’s really pretty much all there is. But the queen was difficult and locked him in the Tower of London for the “crime” of not getting permission to marry one of her ladies-in-waiting who he had knocked up. But after a couple of months, the queen calmed down and all was forgiven. But after Elizabeth died, he was not in favor with King James. He soon ended up in the Tower of London again — this time for over a decade. Then he went off on another expedition to America where he got into a little trouble by attacking a Spanish outpost there. As a result, Spain requested and got Raleigh put to death. “Off with his head!”
It is probably best to think of Raleigh as an explorer, but I think of him mostly as a poet. He did write quite a lot (not at all limited to poetry) — especially during that decade when he was stuck in the Tower of London. But I’m most interested in one poem. Before getting to it, however, we have to discuss a poem by Christopher Marlowe, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” This poem wasn’t published until 1599, but it couldn’t have been written any later than 1593, when Marlowe died. Given that Marlowe produced pretty much all of his work from 1590 to 1593, we can assume it is from this period. It is a beautiful poem that shows Marlowe’s amazing technical strength as a poet, as well as a softer side than we see in his plays:
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
There will we sit upon the rocks,
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
There I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.
The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.
The one thing about the poem is that it is the work of a young man. It is naive about the complexities of relationships. Walter Raleigh must have felt this way, because in 1596, he wrote, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” He was in his middle 40s, having already spent a couple of months in the Tower of London as a result of “love.” So the nymph’s reply is a good deal more cynical and honest:
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall,
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten—
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.
Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind may move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Although it shows greater emotional maturity, it is not as good a poem as Marlowe’s. But that is to be expected. Marlowe was doubtless the greatest English language poet of that time. The fact that Raleigh is in the same ballpark speaks rather well of him.
Happy birthday Walter Raleigh!