Anniversary Post: Walter Raleigh’s Release

Walter RaleighOn this day in 1616, Walter Raleigh was released from the Tower of London where he had been imprisoned for 13 years. He had a difficult relationship with Queen Elizabeth. But it is probably more accurate to say that Elizabeth was just a difficult person. Anyway, Walter Raleigh got out of prison, went on a voyage, got in trouble, and so was put to death by the crown. I think he was as good at making enemies as he apparently was at making friends.

But I want to talk about his poetry. He wasn’t bad. But he also wasn’t great. And by way of example, I will compare him to Christopher Marlowe, which may not be fair, but if you are talking about great poets, well… In 1592 (the year before his death), Marlowe wrote, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” Here it is in its six verse form:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined 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.

The Shepherds’ 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.

Now this is a beautiful poem. It is also simplistic. Marlowe was only 28 years old. Also, he was almost certainly gay. But it wasn’t published until Marlowe was long dead, in 1599. At that point, Walter Raleigh read it and decided to write a response to it. This would put him at just under 50 years old. And he was, shall we say, rather familiar with sexual politics.

So in 1600, Walter Raleigh published, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” It is much more wise and knowing. And I admire that. At the same time, I think it is quite clear that he was not the the poet that Marlowe was. Still, it is a nice poem. And I love it when artists interact in this way. It’s too bad Marlowe wasn’t alive to reply himself.

If all the world and love were young,
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 might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

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