16 June 2010

Sir Walter Ralegh's Verse

Figure I: A Comely Frontispiece!

Good morn, fair reader! In these sultry days of midsummer, I bring you a tale from Ye Olde Elizabethan England. Anon!

Perhaps you have heard of Sir Walter Rale(i)gh (1552-1618), that great explorer, courtier, and cad. But did you also know he was also a first-rate versifier in an age saturated with bards of varying quality? Just one in a long line of Briton explorer-poets, Ralegh's rhymes far outrank the efforts of his fellows, like Sir Francis Drake's erotic blank verse epic Mine Golden Hind, or Cristobal Colon's misguided collaboration with cycloptic soldier-poet Luis de Camões to put his ship logbooks into heptameter, "Doubt Thee I Ye Indies Found?".

Figure II: The company's slogan (original: "Sooner or later - thine favourite Tobaccoe") is a line from Ralegh's 1603 poem, "A Blaste for Tobacco"

Below I will share some of Walt's work, notable for its brevity in an age of long-winded ramblings and its direct language (minus some abominable sixteenth-century spelling, thankfully modernized). Ralegh felt that publishing his poetry was ungentlemanly, so much of his work was printed only after his unfortunate execution for potato smuggling in 1618.

Figure III: Ralegh served as a Chironic poetical tutor to a 'young John Donne' -- sayeth that thrice with haste!

Despite his great enthusiasm for the pleasures of Elizabethan life, Ralegh abhorred that great English vice, gambling (not to be confused with another popular pastime in that age of unstandardized spelling, gamboling). To this end, he composed a "squared quatrain" that illustrated the folly of card and dice games in apocalyptic language:

On the Cards and the Dice

Before the sixth day of the next new year,
Strange wonders in this kingdom shall appear:
Four kings shall be assembled in this isle,
Where they shall keep great tumult for awhile.

Many men then shall have an end of crosses,
And many likewise shall sustain great losses;
Many that now full joyful are and glad,
Shall at that time be sorrowful and sad;

Full many a Christian's heart shall quake for fear,
The dreadful sound of trump when he shall hear.
Dead bones shall then be tumbled up and down,
In every city and in every town.

By day or night this tumult shall not cease,
Until an herald shall proclaim a peace;
An herald strong, the like was never born,
Whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn.

Figure IV: Ralegh often wrote under the nom de plume "Gualtheri Ralegh" to confuse his enemies at Elizabeth's court. 

But Ralegh did not write only on such frivolous subjects. One of his best-known essays at verse is "On the Life of Man," an extended simiphor on how the the human experience is not unlike that of players on a stage. Sound familiar? Perhaps that is because the well-known plagiarist, "William Shakespeare," appropriated Ralegh's theme for his own verse in the play "As You Like It," beginning with "All the world's a stage..." So, without further ado (about nothing):

On the Life of Man

What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,

Our mothers wombs the tiring houses be,
When we are dressed for this short comedy,

Heaven the judicious sharp spector is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss,

Our graves that hide us from the searching sun,
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done,

Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that's no jest.

Figure V: Poetical rival Christopher Marlowe, prone to unwise oaths and wanton drinking.

A devoted father as well as a polymath, Ralegh composed the following lines of parental advice for his son, Walter, Junior. Among other things, Ralegh seems to endorse cannabis smoking in the poem! 'Twere that I had received such practical, rhymed advice from my father:

Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son

Three things there be that prosper up apace,
And flourish while they grow asunder far;
But on a day, they meet all in a place,
And when they meet, they one another mar.

And they be these: the Wood, the Weed, the Wag:
The Wood is that that makes the gallows tree;
The Weed is that that strings the hangman's bag;
The Wag, my pretty knave, betokens thee.

Now mark, dear boy—while these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild;
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.

Figure VI: Ralegh's literary example inspired many young Englishmen to learn sailing and versifying.

Finally, the Cabinet leaves you with Ralegh's self-penned epitaph. I hope that you have enjoyed this sampling of our benighted Walter's verse. Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, "The Performance Art of Sir Martin Frobisher," highlighting his great one-man show, Passages.

Even Such is Time

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,

When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

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