Sir Walter Raleigh

by Henry David Thoreau

Previous Chapter


From the first tentative draft of the MS. of Thoreau's Sir Walter Raleigh

1. Another and kindred spirit contemporary with Raleigh, who survives yet more exclusively in his reputation, rather than in his works, and has been the subject perhaps of even more and more indiscriminate praise, is Sir Philip Sidney; a man who was no less a presence to his contemporaries, though we now look in vain in his works for satisfactory traces of his greatness. Who, dying at the age of thirty-two, having left no great work behind him, or the fame of a single illustrious exploit, has yet left the rumor of a character for heroic impulses and gentle behavior which bids fair to survive the longer lives and more illustrious deeds of many a worthy else, the splendor of whose reputation seems to have blinded his critics to the faults of his writings. So that we find his Arcadia spoken of with vague and dubious praise as "a book most famous for rich conceits and splendor of courtly expressions." With regard to whom also this reason is assigned why no monument should be erected to him, that "he is his own monument whose memory is eternized in his writings, and who was born into the world to show unto our age a sample of ancient virtue," and of whom another says, "It was he whom Queen Elizabeth called her Philip; the Prince of Orange, his master; and whose friendship my Lord Brook was so proud of, that he would have no other epitaph on his grave than this:

'Here lieth Sir Philip Sidney's Friend.'"

From Raleigh, by Edmund Gosse

2. Arabella Stuart (born about 1575) was James I's first cousin, the daughter of Charles Stuart, fifth Earl of Lennox, Lord Darnley's elder brother. About 1588 she had come up to London to be presented to Elizabeth, and on that occasion had amused Raleigh with her gay accomplishments. The legal quibble on which her claim was founded was the fact that she was born in England, whereas James as a Scotchman was supposed to be excluded. Arabella was no pretender; her descent from Margaret, the sister of Henry VIII, was complete, and if James had died childless, and she had survived him, it is difficult to see how her claim could have been avoided in favor of the Suffolk line.

3. Dr. Robert Tounson, then Dean of Westminster, who became Bishop of Salisbury. [Gosse.]

4. There is a pleasant legend that Raleigh and one of his half-brothers were riding up to town from Plymouth, when Raleigh's horse stumbled and threw him within the precincts of a beautiful Dorsetshire estate, then in possession of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury, and that Raleigh, choosing to consider that he had thus taken seisin of the soil, asked the Queen for Sherborne[1] Castle when he arrived at Court. It may have been on this occasion that Elizabeth asked him when he would cease to be a beggar, and received the reply, "When your Majesty ceases to be a benefactor." [Gosse.]

5. This passage about Alexander and Epaminondas is preceded in Ralegh, as copied by Thoreau in the scrap-book, by some general remarks on that remarkable quality in a few men which Ralegh seems to have felt in himself, which, as he wrote, "Guided handfuls of men against multitudes of equal bodily strength, contrived victories beyond all hope and discourse of reason, converted the fearful passions of his own followers into magnanimity, and the valor of his enemies into cowardice. Such spirits have been stirred up in sundry ages of the world, and in divers parts thereof, to erect and cast down again, to establish and to destroy, and to bring all things, persons and states to the same certain ends which the infinite Spirit of the Universal, piercing, moving and governing all things, hath ordained." It was passages like this, in his speech and writings, that laid Ralegh open to the charge of atheism, which seems to have been first brought against him at the same time that his friend the poet Marlowe was similarly accused, in 1592-3, and may have been one of the reasons why Queen Elizabeth withdrew her favor from Ralegh about that time. The definite accusations against Marlowe, which were sent to Queen Elizabeth in June, 1592, apparently, were from the mouth of one Richard Baine, who was hanged for felony two years after, and contained these words, perhaps pointing towards Ralegh: "That one Richard Cholmelei hath confessed that he was persuaded by Marlowe's reason to become an atheist. These things shall by good and honest men be proved to be his opinions and common speeches, and that this Marlowe doth not only hold them himself, but almost in every company he cometh, persuadeth men to atheism,—willing them not to be afraid of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both God and his ministers. . . . He saith, moreover, that he hath quoted a number of contrarieties out of the Scriptures, which he hath given to some great men, who in convenient time shall be named." That Ralegh was one of these "great men" is highly probable; at any rate, the accusation of atheism was then secretly brought against him, and was likely to have weighed with Elizabeth. Ralegh, with Sidney, is believed to have. been one of the English circle who associated with Giordano Bruno, during his short residence in England, a few years before Sidney's death; and Bruno also made himself liable to a like charge of atheism. [F. B. Sanborn.]

6. These lines appear in The Fourth Day of the First Week of Sylvester's version of Guillaume Salluste du Bartas's Divine Weeks and Works, pp. 102-3 of the edition of 1613. Sylvester adds, at the end of those quoted, continuing the sentence,—

But shine in vain, and have no charge precise But to be walking in Heaven's galleries, And through that Palace up and down to clamber As Golden Gulls about a Prince's Chamber.

This conceit of the influence of the stars was general in Ralegh's day. His friend Sidney, in his Sonnet XXVI, has the same thought as Ralegh, but turns it to a compliment to Stella,—

Though dusty wits dare scorn Astrology,
⁠And (fools) can think those lamps of purest light
Whose numbers, way, greatness, eternity,
⁠Promising wonders, wonder do invite,
To have for no cause birthright in the sky,
⁠But for to spangle the black weeds of Night;
Or for some brawl, which in that chamber high
⁠They should still dance, to please a gazer's sight.
For me, I do Nature unidle know,
⁠And know great causes great effects procure,
And know, those bodies high rule o'er the low;
⁠And if these rules did fail, proof makes me sure,—
Who oft forejudge my after-following race
By only those two stars in Stella's face.

In what follows, concerning the powers and bodily nature of man, Ralegh uses what was a commonplace of his period, but expresses this quaint conceit with more grace than was customary, and closes it with that touch of regret so familiar in him, though in expression he may borrow from the Sicilian lament of Moschus for Bion. And so poetical is his prose at times, that Thoreau very properly calls the passage on the decay of oracles a "poem." [F. B. Sanborn.]

From Thoreau's second draft of the MS.

7. Aubrey says, "I well remember his study [at Durham-house] which was on a little turret that looked into and over the Thames, and had the prospect, which is as pleasant, perhaps, as any in the world, and which not only refreshes the eie-sight, but cheers the spirits, and (to speake my mind) I believe enlarges an ingeniose man's thoughts." Perhaps it was here that he composed some of his poems.



Quivering fears, heart-tearing cares,
Anxious sighs, untimely tears,
⁠Fly, fly to courts;
⁠Fly to fond worldlings' sports,
Where strain'd sardonic smiles are glosing still,
And grief is forc'd to laugh against her will;
⁠Where mirth's but mummery;
⁠And sorrows only real be!

Fly from our country pastimes ! fly,
Sad troop of human misery;
⁠Come, serene looks,
⁠Clear as the crystal brooks,
Or the pure azur'd heaven, that smiles to see
The rich attendance of our poverty.
⁠Peace, and a secure mind,
⁠Which all men seek, we only find.

Abused mortals ! did you know
Where joy, heart's-ease, and comforts grow,
⁠You'd scorn proud towers,
⁠And seek them in these bowers,
Where winds sometimes our woods perhaps may shake,
But blustering care could never tempest make;
⁠Nor murmurs e'er come nigh us,
⁠Saving of fountains that glide by us.

Here's no fantastic masque, nor dance,
But of our kids, that frisk and prance:
⁠Nor wars are seen,
⁠Unless upon the green
Two harmless lambs are butting one the other,
Which done, both bleating run, each to his mother;
⁠And wounds are never found,
⁠Save what the plough-share gives the ground.

Here are no false entrapping baits,
To hasten too too hasty fates;
⁠Unless it be
⁠The fond credulity
Of silly fish, which, worldling-like, still look
Upon the bait, but never on the hook:
⁠Nor envy, unless among
⁠The birds, for prize of their sweet song.

Go! let the diving negro seek
For gems hid in some forlorn creek;
⁠We all pearls scorn,
⁠Save what the dewy morn
Congeals upon each little spire of grass,
Which careless shepherds beat down as they pass;
⁠And gold ne'er here appears,
⁠Save what the yellow Ceres bears.

Blest, silent groves! O may ye be
For ever mirth's best nursery!
⁠May pure contents
⁠For ever pitch their tents
Upon these downs, these meads, these rocks, these mountains,
And peace still slumber by these purling fountains!
⁠Which we may every year
⁠Find when we come a fishing here!



Go, soul, the body's guest,
⁠Upon a thankless errand;
Fear not to touch the best
⁠The truth shall be thy warrant
⁠Go, since I needs must die,
⁠And give them all the lie.

Go, tell the court it glows,
⁠And shines like painted wood;
Go, tell the church it shews
⁠What's good, but does no good.
⁠If court and church reply,
⁠Give court and church the lie.

Tell potentates, they live
⁠Acting, but O their actions!
Not lov'd, unless they give;
⁠Nor strong, but by their factions.
⁠If potentates reply,
⁠Give potentates the lie.

Tell men of high condition,
⁠That rule affairs of state,
Their purpose is ambition;
⁠Their practice only hate.
⁠And if they do reply,
⁠Then give them all the lie.

Tell those that brave it most,
⁠They beg for more by spending;
Who in their greatest cost
⁠Seek nothing but commending.
⁠And if they make reply,
⁠Spare not to give the lie.

Tell zeal it lacks devotion;
⁠Tell love it is but lust;
Tell time it is but motion;
⁠Tell flesh it is but dust:
⁠And wish them not reply,
⁠For thou must give the lie.

Tell age it daily wasteth;
⁠Tell honor how it alters;
Tell beauty that it blasteth;
⁠Tell favor that she falters:
⁠And as they do reply,
⁠Give every one the lie.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
⁠In fickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles
⁠Herself in over-wiseness:
⁠And if they do reply,
⁠Then give them both the lie.

Tell physic of her boldness;
⁠Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
⁠Tell law it is contention:
⁠And if they yield reply,
⁠Then give them still the lie.

Tell fortune of her blindness;
⁠Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
⁠Tell justice of delay:
⁠And if they do reply,
⁠Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
⁠But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they lack profoundness,
⁠And stand too much on seeming.
⁠If arts and schools reply,
⁠Give arts and schools the lie.

Tell faith it's fled the city;
⁠Tell how the country erreth;
Tell manhood, shakes off pity;
⁠Tell virtue, least preferreth.
⁠And if they do reply,
⁠Spare not to give the lie.

So, when thou hast, as I
⁠Commanded thee, done blabbing;
Although to give the lie
⁠Deserves no less than stabbing
⁠Yet stab at thee who will,
⁠No stab the soul can kill.

10. The allusion here is doubtless to Thoreau's intimate companion of forty years from early in 1843, Ellery Channing, who in the winter of 1843-44 was chopping cordwood on the road from Concord to Lincoln, near where Thoreau and his friend, Stearns Wheeler of Lincoln, had a cabin in the woods for study and amusement. Channing's experiences that winter gave occasion to the making of a poem, The Woodman, which gave title to his third book of verses, published in 1849 (the year when The Week came out) and was reprinted in 1902, with omissions and additions, from the Channing MSS. in Poems of Sixty-Five Years. Thoreau himself had some times been a wood-cutter; indeed, his range of manual employments, as he wrote his Harvard Class Secretary in 1847, made him "a Surveyor, a Gardener, a Farmer, a Painter (I mean a House-painter), a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-laborer, a Pencil-maker, a etc." In a letter to Horace Greeley, of May, 1848, Thoreau said that he had supported himself by manual labor at a dollar a day for the past five years, and yet had seen more leisure than most scholars found. He added, "There is no reason why the scholar, who professes to be a little wiser than the mass of men, should not do his work in the dirt occasionally, and by means of his superior wisdom make much less suffice for him. A wise man will not be unfortunate,—how then would you know but he was a fool?"

His friend Emerson, however, did not find that the laborer's strokes that he used himself in his "pleached garden" helped him to better strokes of the pen; and so employed Alcott, Channing, and Thoreau now and then to make the laborer's strokes for him, while he meditated in his study or walked the woods and fields. [F. B. Sanborn.]

11. This trait of cheerfulness was Thoreau's own, and should be named in all mention of him, especially in the long endurance of his last illness. It is well known that the son and namesake of Horace Mann was the companion of Thoreau on that long journey to the unsettled parts of Minnesota in 1861, from which he returned only to linger and die in May, 1862. Mrs. Mann, the mother of young Horace (who himself did not long survive), thus wrote in May of that year to her sister, Mrs. Hawthorne: "I was made very happy to-day by seeing Miss Thoreau, whose brother died such a happy, peaceful death,—leaving them all so fully possessed of his faith in the Immortal Life that they seem almost to have entered it with him. They said [meaning Mrs. Thoreau, her sister, Louisa Dunbar, and his other aunts, as well as Sophia, his sister], they never could be sad in his presence for a moment; he had been the happiest person they had ever known, all through his life, and was just as happy in the presence of death. This is the more remarkable, as he was still in the prime of life, with a vivid sense of its enjoyments. But he was nearer to the heart of Nature than most men. Sophia said to-day that he once told her when looking at a pressed flower that he had walked 10,000 miles to verify the day on which that flower bloomed. It grew four miles from his home, and he walked there every day in the season of it for many years. . . . He seemed to walk straight into Heaven. It is animating and inspiring to see a great or a good man take that last step with his thoughts about him, and intent upon the two worlds whose connection he sees with the clairvoyance that death gives. I know it well, and I could fully sympathize in her sense of her brother's continued presence. Death is not the word to use for such a transit,—but more life,—for which we as yet have no word."

In a letter to Thoreau's good friend at New Bedford, Daniel Ricketson (printed in Anna and Walton Ricketson's Memoir of their father, p. 142), Sophia, under date of May 20, 1862, said: "During Henry's long illness I never heard a murmur escape him, or the slightest wish expressed to remain with us; his perfect contentment was truly wonderful. None of his friends seemed to realize how very ill he was, so full of life and good cheer did he seem. One friend, as if by way of consolation, said to him, 'Well, Mr. Thoreau, we must all go.' Henry replied, 'When I was a very little boy I learned that I must die, and I set that down,—so of course I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to you as it is to me.' . . . The devotion of his friends was most rare and touching. He would sometimes say 'I should be ashamed to stay in this world after so much had been done for me; I could never repay my friends.'"

In this last sally of his wit, which was as marked in its expression during his illness as in his vigorous days of rambling and writing, we see not alone the humor, but likewise that strict sense of obligation which he had from boyhood. He wished to receive nothing gratis except from Nature herself; his debts, unlike those of many poets, must always be punctually paid. [F. B. Sanborn.]

12. In this description of Virtue, Thoreau made some use of the MS. afterward printed in Mr. Sanborn's edition, in which he quoted the same passage from Sir Thomas Browne, but without giving the author's name. A portion of the illustration of the clarion and corselet is also found in The Service. That this whole Ralegh sketch was given as a winter lecture in the Concord Lyceum is rendered probable by his speaking hereof " waiting for warm weather," and of a winter campaign. If the records of that Lyceum were complete we might find the very evening on which he read it there,—not later, I am sure, than 1845.

[F. B. Sanborn.]


1 - Sherborne came into Ralegh's possession in 1592.—ed.

2 - This poem (also called The Lie and The Farewell) has been given as written by Sir Walter Ralegh, the night before his execution, which was October 29, 1618; but it had already appeared in Davison's Rhapsody, in 1608; and it is also to be found in a MS. collection of Poems in the British Museum, which has the date of 1596. With the title, The Lie, it is printed by Davison with many variations, e. g.,—

Say to the court it glows,
⁠And shines like rotten wood, &c., &c.—Ed.


Previous Chapter      

Return to the Sir Walter Raleigh Summary Return to the Henry David Thoreau Library

© 2022