Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Edmund Gosse
Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?–1618)
[Walter Raleigh, the second son of Walter Raleigh of Hayes Barton, was born in 1552 at East Budleigh, Devonshire. He was educated at Christ Church and Oriel College, Oxford. At the close of 1579 he joined the expedition to defend Ireland against Catholic invasion. He became a courtier of Elizabeth, and in 1585 was knighted. Early in 1595 he started on an expedition to explore Guiana. Next year he took part in the attack on Cadiz from the sea, and later on, in 1596, in the “Island Voyage” to the Azores. In 1600 Raleigh was made Governor of Jersey. With the accession of James I. the fortunes of this picturesque favourite of Elizabeth were reversed. On the 17th of July 1603 Raleigh was arrested at Windsor. Tried at Winchester for “rebellion,” and condemned, he was thrown into the Tower of London, where he remained until 1616. Early in 1617 he started again for Guiana, was arrested on his return to England in June 1618, and was beheaded in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, on the 29th of October of the same year. His head was embalmed, and his body buried in St. Margaret’s, Westminster.]  1
UNTIL his fortieth year Sir Walter Raleigh, whose ambition to be a poet was but a vacillating one, showed no desire at all to express himself in deliberate prose. In 1591 he published anonymously the little pamphlet called A Report of the Fight in the Azores, which defended the reputation and celebrated the courage of Sir Richard Grenville. It is an admirable piece of succinct and manly narrative, without extrinsic adornment, conceived in the manner of the Hakluyts and Frobishers, whose rude sea-chronicles are still such delightful reading. The Report has the faults of its age; it is not a merit that the opening sentence contains one hundred and thirty-three words; and where the writer would be eloquent, he is apt to be lumbering. But when he describes direct occurrences, and marshals recollections in his burning way, his glow of patriotism shortens his phrases and divides his clauses. The tract is one which no Englishman can read without being stirred by it “as by the sound of a trumpet.”  2
  Raleigh’s next performance was a much more elaborate one. In 1596 (December 1595) he published The Discovery of Guiana, a record of the author’s romantic expedition to El Dorado, and the great and golden city of Manoa. This was a work of high importance in the development of English prose, the most brilliant and original contribution to the literature of travel which had been made during the reign of Elizabeth, rich as that had been in work of the same class. Hume, who spurned the Discovery from him as “full of the grossest and most palpable lies,” showed an eighteenth-century blindness to the truth which lay under the magnificent diction of Raleigh’s narrative, but it is strange that the conduct of that narrative itself could win no word of praise from such a critic. The story of the advance upon South America, the curious little prologue in Trinidad, the romantic voyage to the Orinoco, the gorgeous denizens of the river-banks, the dreary and mysterious country into which the bewildered explorers penetrated, all these are described in language the peculiar charm of which is its simplicity, laced or embroidered at successive moments by phrases of extreme magnificence. We are not dazzled and wearied by the cumulative richness of diction, as is the case in those tracts of the Euphuists which were at this very time being produced, but the sobriety of the general texture justly relieves the occasional splendour of embroidery. It would not be uninstructive to compare a page of The Discovery of Guiana with one from another famous South American volume of the same year, 1596, the Margarite of America of Lodge. The studied mellifluous harmony of the latter seems very fine, until we are sated with its sumptuousness; but Raleigh’s stronger and simpler narrative gives the ear a far more lasting pleasure. It is remarkable that the publication of the Discovery is almost exactly coeval with the first appearance of Hooker and of Bacon. In company with these great writers, Raleigh comes forward as a defender of lucid and wholesome prose, against the captivating malady of the Euphuists.  3
  The long and vigorous letter, entitled A Relation of Cadiz Action, was Raleigh’s next prose work. This belongs to the end of the year 1596, and gives a brilliant description of that bright morning of St. Barnabas which covered the writer with so much glory. It is written in a style which recalls both the previous narratives, but is perhaps a little more lax and hurried than either, not having been composed for the press. How lax the style of Raleigh could be, only those can judge who have waded through the intolerable obscurities and ungainly prolixities of his private correspondence. As a letter-writer he was not above, he was indeed distinctly below, the far from elevated average of his contemporaries.  4
  Immersed in affairs, and caught in the web of his intrigues, Raleigh contributed nothing more to literature for twenty years. But when, after the troubles and baffled hopes of 1606, he made up his mind to be as contented as he could in his captivity, he turned to books and to composition with extreme pleasure. His writing-table grew to be the one spot where he found consolation, and after having been the most casual of fashionable amateurs, he became the most voluminous writer of his age. Between 1606 and 1616 it is probable that no one in England blackened so much paper. Of Raleigh’s literary labour during those years we possess but a fragment, yet our shelves groan beneath it. Of his Art of War by Sea, for instance, which was or should have been a work of great extent, one or two chapters are all that have come down to us, and many other books of Raleigh’s are altogether lost.  5
  Only one of his many compositions, completed or projected in the Tower, was published in Raleigh’s lifetime. This was The History of the World, begun probably in 1607, and published, under the care of Ben Jonson, in March 1614. This was only the first, though it remained the last, volume of a work which Raleigh intended should consist of at least three tomes, yet this one instalment contains 1354 folio pages. It only brings us down, however, to the conquest of Macedon by Rome. This huge composition is one of the principal glories of seventeenth-century literature, and takes a very prominent place in the history of English prose. As before, so here we find Raleigh superior to the ornaments and oddities of the Euphuists. He indites a large matter, and it is in a broad and serious style. The Preface, perhaps, leads the reader to expect something more modern, more entertaining than he finds. It is not easy to sympathise with a historian who confutes Steuchius Eugubinus and Goropius Becanus at great length, especially as those flies now exist only in the amber of their opponent. But the narrative, if obsolete and long-winded, possesses an extraordinary distinction, and, in its brighter parts, is positively resplendent. The book is full of practical wisdom, knowledge of men in the mass, and trenchant study of character. It is heavy and slow in movement, the true historical spirit, as we now conceive it, is absent, and it would probably baffle most readers to pursue its attenuated thread of entertainment down to the triumph of Emilius Paulus. But of its dignity there can be no two opinions, and in sustained power it easily surpassed every prose work of its own age.  6
  After the death of Raleigh, his memory was peculiarly cultivated by those who were most severely in opposition to the King. Hence it was men like John Hampden and Milton who collected all they could secure of his scattered MSS. The former is stated by David Lloyd to have been at the expense of having 3452 sheets of Raleigh’s handwriting copied. By degrees, even before the Civil Wars, certain specimens stole furtively into publicity. In 1628 was printed, at Middelburg in Holland, The Prerogative of Parliament in England, in which, under the guise of a dialogue between a Counsellor of State and a Justice of the Peace, the captive offers good advice as to his relations with the House of Commons, in very courteous form, to the King who was his jailor. The Cabinet Council, which Milton published in 1658, was another fragment of Raleigh’s political writing. The poet had had this volume “many years in my hands, and finding it lately by chance among other books and papers, upon reading thereof I thought it a kind of injury to withhold longer the work of so eminent an author from the public.” It is a treatise on the arts of empire, a text-book of State-craft, as has been said, intended in usum Delphini, for there can be no question that this work was composed for the benefit of the amiable and unfortunate Prince Henry. Another product of Raleigh’s captivity was A Discourse of War, a treatise conceived in a lighter and less allusive vein than Raleigh’s purely political writings. The close of this discourse is printed among our extracts, and will be admired for dignity and eloquence. Very late in his life he wrote the Observations on Trade and Commerce, which first appeared, with other of his miscellaneous writings, in 1651. Raleigh came forward as a free-trader of the most uncompromising kind at the very moment when the King was most actively promoting legislation of a protective order. Finally must be mentioned the Breviary of the History of England, printed in 1693; although this presents none of the peculiar characteristics of Raleigh’s style, and is, in all probability, mainly the production of the poet Samuel Daniel.  7
  Numerous and voluminous as are the writings of Sir Walter Raleigh, it is not very easy to form a general idea of his style from their perusal. He was what we now call an amateur, in contradistinction to the author who makes it his principal business to write, and who is constantly preoccupied with the way in which he shall produce such and such an effect. Raleigh wrote only because he had something in his mind which importuned him to say it, or else because he was confined and fretting for employment. To praise The History of the World has long been a commonplace with critics, but to read it is not so easy. When a biographer of Raleigh tells us that this huge chronicle is “always bright and apt,” we know not what he means, for there are pages upon pages in it unillumined by a single sparkle of wit, deserts of scholastic learning absolutely misapplied. What adds nothing to the liveliness of the narrative is the extreme length of the languid sentences, clause interwoven into clause, like the tangle in a string-bag. Here is a sentence, absolutely chosen at random, yet on the whole a distinctly favourable example of Raleigh’s historical manner, when he is not particularly moved by his theme:—
          The bridge finished, and the army brought near to the sea-side, Xerxes took a view of all his troops, assembled in the plains of Abidus, being carried up and seated on a place over-topping the land round about it, and the sea adjoining, and after he had gloried in his own happiness to behold and command so many nations and so powerful an army and fleet, he suddenly, notwithstanding, burst out into tears, moved with this contemplation, that in one hundred years there should not any one survive of that marvellous multitude, the cause of which sudden change of passion when he uttered to Artabanus his uncle, Artabanus spake to the King to this effect, that which is more lamentable than the dissolution of this great troop within that number of years by the King remembered, is that the life itself which we enjoy is yet more miserable than the end thereof, for in those few days given us in the world, there is no man among all these, nor elsewhere, that ever found himself so accompanied with happiness, but that he oftentimes pleased himself better with the desire and hope of death than of living, the incident calamities, diseases, and sorrows whereto mankind is subject, being so many and incurable that the shortest life doth often appear unto us over-long, to avoid all which there is neither refuge nor rest, but in desired death alone.
  The conduct of this enormous sentence is skilful, its cadence is dignified and sonorous, the ideas it contains are distinguished; but its elephantine bulk, unrelieved as it is by any of the arts of punctuation, deprives it of that pleasure-giving power which resides in more brief and elastic prose. When, moreover, we find such a sentence preceded and followed by elephants of its own size, and we propose to read a volume of 1300 folio pages all constructed, more or less, after this pattern, it is simply unfair to speak of such writing in terms which would be appropriate to the style of Mr. Froude or M. Renan. Raleigh is often magnificent, as our extracts will amply prove, and he is at all times free from the fantastic and abnormal errors of the prose-writers fashionable in his time, but he is very far indeed from having discovered a current prose-style suitable for historical uses. He is essentially to be read in extracts, and admired in purple patches.  9

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