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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?–1618)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ashley Horace Thorndike (1871–1933)
 
NO man was more typical of the variety and initiative of the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth than Sir Walter Raleigh. Like many of the other worthies of that time, his character was mingled of baseness and ideality, mendacity and magnanimity, and his life was spent in a series of daring inroads into almost every field of human activity that offered reward for enterprise. Soldier and courtier, capitalist and adventurer, pirate and poet; wherever gold or glory beckoned, he led the foremost ranks.  1
  Before he had finished at Oxford, he had served as a volunteer with the Huguenot army in France. At twenty-six he commanded the Falcon of one hundred tons in an expedition for discovery and plunder under his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. A few months later he was fighting bravely in Ireland, and also putting six hundred Spanish prisoners to the sword. By 1582 he was at court and in high favor with the queen, perhaps because of the famous episode of his new plush coat spread over a muddy place for her majesty to walk upon. At all events, within a few years he had been knighted and presented with great domains and rich monopolies. But he was not content with a life of ease. In 1584 he fitted out the first English expedition to the New World, and gave the name Virginia to a long stretch of the Atlantic seaboard. Within five years he had spent £40,000 in fruitless attempts to establish the colony, and had won undying fame as the pioneer of the British Empire.  2
  It is not so clear that he deserves his fame as the introducer of the potato to Ireland and tobacco to England; but his use of the pipe seems to have started the fashion of smoking which quickly spread to all classes. He was one of the commission that drew up the plan of defense against the Spanish Armada, and for the rest of his life was the ever-active foe of Spain. In 1592 his love affair with Elizabeth Throgmorton lost him the favor of the jealous queen and sent him to the Tower. A partial reconciliation was arranged, and Raleigh was permitted to marry the lady. His famous voyage to Guiana in search of gold in 1595, his brilliant fighting at Cadiz in 1596, his action at Fayal and quarrel with his chief Essex in 1597, were followed by some years of court intrigue in which Raleigh became involved in conspiracy against the accession of James I.  3
  He was tried for treason and sentenced to death in 1603; but finally was deprived of his estate and committed to the Tower where he remained a prisoner until 1616. He was released in order that he might conduct another expedition for the gold mine on the Orinoco. This second voyage to Guiana was fateful. After surmounting perils of storm, fever, and mutiny, the adventurers were forced to attack the Spanish settlement of San Tomas and were finally barred from approach to the mine. Raleigh’s son had fallen in the attack; his men and captains refused to venture farther, and he returned to disgrace and death in England. The Spanish Ambassador Gondomar, now high in favor with James, demanded vengeance. On the old sentence of 1603, Raleigh was executed for treason in 1618. As there was some discussion as how his head should be placed on the block, he spoke his last words, “What matter how the head lie, so the heart be right.”  4
  In these brief notes of the most striking activities of his busy life, no mention has yet been made of his literary labors. Yet Raleigh probably devoted more time to the pursuit of literature than to business, intrigue, or fighting. From his youth he was a great reader, and his commendatory verses to Gascoigne’s ‘Steel Glass’ in 1576 indicate that he had begun his long acquaintanceship with both poets and poetry. He must have met Spenser in 1580, and their friendship was later celebrated by both poets. Raleigh’s most ambitious poem ‘Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea’ survives only in a fragment in which he refers to himself as ‘The Shepherd of the Ocean’ the picturesque title that Spenser had conferred upon him. His best-known poems are the two commendatory of the ‘Fairy Queen,’ and the charming reply to Marlowe’s ‘Come, live with me.’  5
  Of his prose works the ‘Report of the Truth of the Fight about the Isles of Azores’ (The Revenge) and the ‘Discovery of the Empire of Guiana’ have been reprinted by the Hakluyt Society and are known to everyone who loves the tales of the Elizabethan sea rovers. His ‘History of the World,’ which occupied seven or eight years of his imprisonment in the Tower, is not so well known to-day, though it was extremely popular through the seventeenth century. The portion finished surveys the affairs of the known world from creation down to the Roman conquest of Macedonia, but there are many digressions on events of his own day which give it interest and value for the reader of the present. The whole history, planned with imagination, and carried through by arduous and extended reading, is a noble monument to its author and to that spirit of intellectual and imaginative enterprise which is one of the great glories of Elizabeth’s England. The sublimity of that enterprise stirred Raleigh’s pen as he wrote the great apostrophe to Death with which the ‘History’ ends.  6
  Raleigh was the friend and associate of men of learning and letters throughout his life. With Archbishop Parker, Selden, and Cotton he was a member of the Society of Antiquaries. With Marlowe and others he formed a club for the discussion of philosophical themes, which brought some of its members under charges of atheism. Raleigh is credited with having suggested the meetings at the Mermaid Tavern, later famous for the wit combats between Jonson and Shakespeare. Ben Jonson regarded him as “father”; and the friend of Spenser, Marlowe, and Jonson must have known Shakespeare. There is, however, no record of their acquaintance, and Shakespeare seems to have been a partisan of Raleigh’s enemy Essex.  7
  The two men ought to have been friends for they both have given astounding records of the abounding power of human individuality. Shakespeare’s plays celebrate the magnitude and the variety of individuals, and in a way Raleigh’s life is the best commentary on those plays. It records the amazing variety of impulses and motives that one life could compass in those stirring times; and in its essays in literature it has left for posterity some suggestions of what the greater poet has celebrated so completely—the allurements of beauty, the great horizons of inquiry, the magnificence of human struggle.  8
 
 
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