Sir Walter Ralegh – a few poems

The poems I read today are similarly to the previous ones quite bitter. “Farewell, false love” is a long list of all the bad things that love is – a poisoned serpent covered all with flowers, a maze, a raging cloud etc. Now the poet is older, presumably wiser and can bid adieu to all this, because in what I guess is potentially a lewd pun “dead is the root whence all these fancies grew”.

“Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay” is an elaborate sonnet in praise of the first three books of The Faerie Queene. The poet has a vision in which he sees the grave of Laura, Petrarch’s beloved, guarded by Fatih and Virtue. But when the Faerie Queene comes by to pay a visit, they leave the grave to serve her, presumably because she is superior to her. Petrarch weeps as he is laid by Oblivion on Laura’s grave. The groans of buried ghosts pierce heavens where Homer trembles and curses the day when “that celestial thief” (i.e. Spenser) appeared.

“Nature, that washed her hands in milk” is an elaborate “carpe diem” allegory. Nature washes her hands in milk and does not dry them afterwards, but takes snow and silk and makes out of them the perfect mistress for Love. The beauty has “a violet breath”, eyes made of light, hair neither too dark nor too bright, and her insides are full of wantonness (i.e. playfulness) and wit. But unfortunately her heart is made out of stone and so Love must die. But then comes Time, who does not wash his hands at all, but “being made of steel and rust/Turns snow and silk and milk to dust”, and the playfulness and wit are not preserved either.

“The Author’s Epitaph, Made by Himself” is according to a legend a poem written down in the Bible on the night before Ralegh’s execution. It is a subtle reworking of the last stanza of the previous poem, with two lines added, While the last stanza of the original poem is the lament on the cruelty of Time, who takes everything from us and drives us to the grave, the last two lines express the hope about the resurrection.

The poems of Ralegh, at least in this selection give me the impression of a rather melancholy and embittered man. Even when he wants to pay a compliment to his friend Spenser, he cannot imagine doing it any other way but by dissing other poets. I know that biographical criticism is a dangerous game, but the image these poems project is of a very frustrated person, even though for a big part of his life Ralegh was a very successful self-made man, rising from provincial gentry to a member of the Queen’s closest circles.


Sir Walter Ralegh – “The Lie”

I’ve just discovered a printing error in my copy of the NAEL – page 919 is printed twice, once in its proper place and once instead of page 926, which means I have a fragment of “The Lie” printed twice, but “The Discover of El Dorado” is cut short. Well, I guess I’ll just have to make do with what I have. In this poem the poet addresses his soul, asking her to go around the world and address various people, institutions and ideas, accusing them essentially of their falseness and triviality, and if they reply, give them the lie (i.e. accuse them of lying) – this final couplet in its various permutations ends each stanza. The poet can afford to be so brave because he is about to die, although the poem probably was written long before his actual death – it’s just an imaginary situation. So he’s not afraid to tell the church that though it shows what’s good, it does not do what it teaches, the monarchs that they are loved only when they give and their power is based on a faction, or the members of the government that their only motivation is ambition and so on. But in this rather bitter poem (similar in this note to the poems I read yesterday) there is a tiny note of hope at the end. Of course all those people you gave the lie will want to stab you at least, but “stab at thee he that will/No stab thy soul can kill.” The world is completely rotten from bottom to the top, but the eternity is above the sordid life on this earth.

Sir Walter Ralegh – “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”, “What is our life?” “Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son”

Sir Walter Ralegh (not Raleigh, although this spelling, which he himself never used, proved to be oddly popular) already appeared here in the poetic exchange between himself and Elizabeth I. He was a colourful figure – a poet, soldier, explorer, on-and-off favourite of Elizabeth I (although the legend about him throwing his expensive cloak to cover the puddle in front of her is probably not true). James I imprisoned him on his coming to throne for attempted plotting against him. He let him out on an expedition to Guyana, which was a chance for Ralegh to rehabilitate himself. Unfortunately, the expedition failed – Ralegh lost his own son in the battle, El Dorado was not found and his soldiers got out of control and ransacked a Spanish outpost, for which Ralegh was beheaded after his return to England.

“The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” is difficult to discuss, because it is the answer to Christopher Marlowe’s famous poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”. But since the NAEL chose to put the authors in birth order and Marlowe was two years younger than Ralegh (although Ralegh’s year of birth is also disputed), it means I won’t read Marlowe’s poem until about 100 pages later. Sure, I could skip ahead, but I didn’t feel like messing with the order. So, to put it briefly: Marlowe’s poem is a pastoral poem, mixing the promises of coral clasps and amber studs with the more rural gifts of flowers. Ralegh adopts the rhythmic pattern of Marlowe’s poem, giving voice to the girl being wooed. She considers all his promises false – not necessarily because the shepherd himself is a particularly bad specimen of mankind, but because everything in this world is subject to decay and death, even love. The fact that the shepherd’s garlands are going to wither is a symptom of the general transience of human life. William Carlos Williams followed the poetic discussion many centuries later with his “Raleigh was right”.

“What is our life?” is a short poem, written in couplets and exploiting the conceit of “life as theatre”. Our life is a “play of passion”, our mirth “music of division” (meaning the music that was played during the intermission), our mothers’ wombs the “tiring house” (the dressing room), our graves the final curtain. Heaven is the spectator, judging us for our acting, but only death is for real.

“Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son” is a title given to this sonnet in one of the manuscripts. Ralegh, as most gentlemen of the day, scorned print publication, which means that not only the chronology of his poetical writings is uncertain, but we also can’t be sure whether he really meant to give this poem this title, whether it was really addressed to his son and when. One could assume, taking into account the poet’s structure – that of a riddle – that it is indeed addressed to a child, although the subject is rather gloomy. There are three things which are fine when they grow separately, but unpleasant when they come together. These things are the wood, the weed and the wag. The wood is the material for the gallows, the weed is hemp, but not in the sense you may think – it’s hemp as the material for the hangman’s hood as well as the rope, and the wag is the addressee of the poem, the young boy. When the three things meet, it means inevitable death. The couplet ends with the moral – beware and “let us pray we part not with thee in this meeting day”. This is a dire warning and one could wonder why being a “wag”, or somebody fond of joking, should carry with it such consequences. But life in the court, as Ralegh had many occasions to learn, was full of intrigues and dangers and could result in an execution (although I think beheading was the privilege of the well-born, while hanging was for low-life criminals). So the encrypted moral might be “bite your tongue”.


Edmund Spenser – “Epithalamion” (the end)

The day drags on and the poet implores the hours to move more swiftly. Finally the sun sets down and the evening star (Venus) appears in the sky, signifying it it time for bed. The poet now addresses the bridesmaids to take the bride to the bedroom, adorned with tapestry and filled with flowers. He asks the Night to hide the lovers with her sable mantle, throwing in several references to Jove and his mistresses for a good measure. The next two stanzas are darker in tone, as Spenser lists all the things he does not want to take place on his wedding night – no hobgoblins or Puck scaring them, no tears, cries or shrieks of owls, ravens and storks – forming the parallel to the birds singing joyfully on the wedding morning. Instead he asks for everything to be enveloped in the holy silence, and hundreds of little Cupids to flit around their marriage bed,

Now comes the most interesting stanza – the moon peeps through the window. Spenser calls the moon “Cynthia” which is the name Queen Elizabeth was given by a number of courtly poets, including his friend and patron Walter Raleigh. As Andrew Davis observes, Spenser is probably the first (and only?) poet who imagined the Queen looking through his window on his wedding night. And you’d think it was Orwell who invented total invigilation! Spenser addresses Cynthia/Diana as the virgin moon goddess, asking her not to be envious because she has also had her fling with Endymion (Davis thinks it’s an allusion to the courtship of d’Alencon). And Elizabeth was known to throw fits when her courtiers married without her approval (again, Raleigh’s case). Spenser asks Diana, the goddess of childbirth, to help them conceive a child on this night. The next stanza invokes a bunch of less interesting Olympian deities. The penultimate stanza expresses the pious hope that their descendants are going to be numbered among saints in Heaven. which is now full of stars. The last stanza is shorter than the previous ones. Traditionally it was called the envoy and was apologetic. In this stanza Spenser says that this poem is instead of the wedding presents which have not arrived on time (the Elizabethan equivalent of FedEx apparently did not work in Ireland or something) but this poem is far better than jewellery because it is going to be “an endlesse monument” to his bride. Which I guess it is.

And so I’ve reached the end of Spenser section. I’ll admit I’ve qualified my previous judgement of Spenser. I always took him for a boring Elizabethan sycophant, but there are quite a number of passages with well-veiled but quite daring notes of criticism. The lilting rhythm of “Epithalamion” is also quite enchanting and I kind of grudgingly appreciate his technical mastery. On the other hand the mythological overload can be sometimes tiresome, as well extensive allegories (especially when they are so monotonous as in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene. I’m glad I’ve mustered enough strength to get through it – but I’m also glad it’s over.

Edmund Spenser – “Epithalamion” (ctd.)

The beauty of the bride, however, is nothing in comparison with her virtues – if you could see them, the poet says, you would be as awe-struck as somebody who has seen Medusa’s head. The poet then asks to open wide the gates of the temple to receive her, and lead her to the altar where the organs are already playing and choristers singing. She is so beautiful, standing in front of that altar, that even the angels, who are constantly present there, leave their places to look closer at her. She remains the paragon of modesty, with her eyes on the ground and blushing when she receives the wedding band. After the ceremony the poem becomes more ludic – the poet calls for the wine to be poured around, so even the walls may get drunk. He also has some mixed feelings about the fact that the wedding takes on St. Barnabas Day (June 11, the date of the summer solstice) because it is on one hand nice to have one’s wedding when the summer is at its peak, but on the other hand he would wish to have it on the longest night of the year, not the shortest.

Astronomical note – June 11 is the date of the Julian calendar, equivalent to June 21 in the Gregorian calendar. On the other hand, in many countries it is St. John’s Eve which is celebrated with bonfires and dances and I’ve always heard the explanation that it’s because of the summer solstice. The only explanation I can think of is that the feast of St. John the Baptist was superimposed by the early Church on the day close to the summer solstice and pagan festivals accompanying it, back in the day when the Julian calendar was not that much out of sync with the movement of the sun. By the time Spenser wrote his poem, it was indeed June 11 that was the longest day of the year but St John’s Eve remained still the traditional day of celebrations. Then the Gregorian reform came and gave St John his longest day back (although England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 18th c.). That’s totally amateurish and I might be wrong. Also it now poses a new question – when is exactly Midsummer Night’s Dream supposed to take place?

Edmund Spenser – “Epithalamion” (ctd.)

The bride is now awake and the poet asks the Hours and the Graces to come and assist her with dressing. He asks the Sun to shine, but not to brightly, in order not to ruin the bride’s complexion. He also asks Phoebus (Apollo) to let him have this one day for himself and his bride, as a poet, and he is going to spend all the other days singing Apollo’s praises. Minstrels begin now to play music and the instruments Spenser mentions are traditional Irish folk ones – in particular “the trembling Croud”, a kind of simple fiddle. But the Irish music is mixed with Greek tradition, as then he writes about boys running around and crying “Hymen, Hymen”, which was highly unlikely in the context of the 16th c. Ireland. The bride now arrives, and all her blond and blue-eyed beauty is described in great detail, in a way that is indebted to “Song of Songs”. I do not quite get the difference between “brest” and “paps”, but they are both white. She is so beautiful that the virgins stop singing in amazement, but she is also very modest, keeps her eyes on the ground and does not like to be the centre of attention.

Edmund Spenser – Epithalamion

“Epithalamion” is an ancient Greek poetical genre, and means literally “the song of the threshold”, i.e. the song sung on the threshold on the bridal chamber by attendants. In Greek poetry it developed into a poem celebrating and describing the whole course of the wedding. Spenser composed this poem to put at the end of the Amoretti cycle as its culmination. The important difference is that he is not, like the creators of other poems of this kind, celebrating other people’s weddings, but his own – “I unto my selfe alone will sing”. The poem is written in elaborate stanzas – I won’t bother here with the exact rhyme and rhythm pattern, but he employs lines of different length and nine rhymes in each stanza. Each stanza ends with the refrain line “That all the woods may answer and your Eccho ring” echoing throughout the poem.

The poem begins with the series of invocations. First the poet implores the muses, who so often helped him to praise other people or mourn his woes, to celebrate his happiness and praise the beauty of his love. Then he asks them to go to her chamber, wake her and help her dress. He also asks other nymphs of gardens and meadows to gather as many flowers as possible and to decorate her chamber and cover the floor with flowers so that she won’t hurt her foot. He also asks the lake nymphs to bind their locks together, wood nymphs to keep the wolves away and all of them to arrive at the wedding. Then he addresses his beloved, asking her to wake up because Aurora has already left Tithonus bed and Phoebus shows his glorious head, meaning it’s sunrise. Since the wedding apparently took place in June, I am not sure it’s a good idea to wake up your fiancée around 5 am, if you want to keep her awake on the wedding night. But poetical conventions are stronger than common sense and Spenser continues in this lyrical vein, listing all the birds that sing sweet songs to his fiancée.