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”.