The adventurous history of an Elizabethan favorite.
Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
As in Machiavelli, prudence and Providence constitute Ralegh’s great themes; but quite unlike Machiavelli, he shows human wisdom humbled by the divine: “There is not therefore the smallest accident, which may seem unto men as falling out by chance, and of no consequence; but that the same is caused by God to effect somewhat else by; yea, and oftentimes to effect things of the greatest worldly importance.” The History had its day—Milton, Cromwell, and Gibbon all thought highly of it—but the last complete edition was published as long ago as 1829.
Prison had its comforts but it was still prison, and writing was not enough. A confidence man who needed to believe his own line of patter in order not to despair, Ralegh dreamed of a redemptive return to Guiana, and spread the word of the treasure abounding there. In 1616, James released him from the Tower, and Ralegh promptly took to the high seas. But the gold-seeking expedition failed utterly, and Ralegh came home to charges of chicanery and disloyalty. The original sentence of treason hung over his head, and this time his head was taken. On the scaffold, he delivered a 45-minute farewell: “[H]e commanded that stage; exploiting the moment through gestures, embracing friends, kissing the axe, working the crowd, fixing the event in memory.” When the executioner hesitated, Ralegh asked him what he feared. His final words were, “Strike, man.” An onlooker exclaimed that in England there was “not such another head to cut off.”
What remains of him that is real? Principally, his poetry. His output is sparse—he was a busy man—but he is the arch-poet of loss and regret, making lovely songs out of heartbreak, as in the sonnet “Farewell to the Court”: As in a countrey strange without companion, / I only waile the wrong of deaths delaies, / Whose sweete spring spent, whose sommer wel nie don, / Of all which past, the sorrow onely staies.
His mind runs to grimness, seeing the baleful aspect in all human striving, whether for honor, empire, wealth, fame, or love. Experience made him the anti-thesis to Machiavelli—who preached the virtue of boundless desire—though one suspects Ralegh’s inborn temperament was quite Machiavellian. And in his greatest poem, “As you came from the holy land,” which may be based on a medieval ballad, Ralegh distinguishes between illusory happiness and the real thing, aware of what the knowledge has cost him:
This was a man who would prefer the facts about himself to the legend.
Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.