Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618); Biography and famous works

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) was an English poet, statesman, historian, courtier, explorer, and colonist. Raleigh was born at Hayes Barton in East Budleigh in Devon, England. From an early age, Walter developed a hatred of Catholicism as Queen Mary persecuted many of his Protestant family members. He was educated at Oxford but he never finished his degree. Raleigh typifies the Renaissance ideal of the complete individual who excelled with easy grace, in all forms of endeavour. In 1581, he suddenly gained the favour of Elizabeth I when he went to Ireland to help suppress an uprising in Munster. He was knighted in 1584 and became a Member of Parliament, receiving extensive estates in Ireland. He was granted a royal patent to explore Virginia, paving the way for future English settlements. In 1591, he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, without the Queen’s permission, for which they were sent to the Tower of London. After his release, they retired to his estate at Sherborne. Although Raleigh was the queen’s favourite, he was not popular. His pride and extravagant spending were notorious, and he was attacked for unorthodox thought. After a turbulent life, he was beheaded at Westminster for treason in 1618.

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In his poetry, Raleigh was distinguished by the simplicity of his vocabulary and the obviousness of his images; he was a plain man’s poet. Yet, every poem was a skilfully constructed argument in which he dispensed traditional morality in didactic imperatives. His special theme was mutability. Raleigh’s poetry contributed to his romantic legend, tinged as it was with a melancholic awareness of the transitory nature of existence. In 1576, he published a commendatory verse at the beginning of The Steele Glas, a satire by George Gascoigne. Perhaps his most significant poetic achievement is the fragmentary Ocean’s Love to Cynthia, a brooding, obscure and allusive text about loss and longing. He turns light banter into sudden realism, as in his most quoted poem, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, which he wrote a poetic response to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” of 1592. In 1596, he published The Discoverie of the large and bewtiful Empire of Guiana which was perhaps more successful than the voyage itself. Raleigh braves the opinion of the worldly in The Lie; mixes grimness and humour in The Wood, the Weed, the Wag; lifts bitterness into resignation in The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage which bore the subtitle, ‘Supposed to be written by one at the point of death’, which may well serve as Raleigh’s own elegy. Deserted by his king and betrayed by his friends, Raleigh was proud even in death. As Agnes M. C. Latham writes in her introduction to the collection of Raleigh’s Poems,

There is, and always has been, something legendary, something fantastic and not quite credible about him. Even to his contemporaries, he seemed a man of more than normal stature… He might have walked out of an Elizabethan play, a figment of the Renaissance imagination, compact of inordinate vices and virtues, and destined to strange ends,… a lonely and an enigmatic figure.

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