Sir Walter Raleigh

by Henry David Thoreau

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Introduction by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn

The finding of a sketch of Sir Walter Ralegh (as he usually spelt his own name) among the manuscripts of Thoreau will be a surprise to most readers. But the subject lay along the lines of his earlier readings after leaving Harvard College, and the sketch, though not so early among his writings as The Service, edited by me in 1902, and those parts of The Week that first came out in The Dial (1840-44), belongs in that active and militant period of his life. It was probably prepared for publication in The Dial, and would have been published there, had not fate and the lack of paying subscribers abruptly stopped that quarterly in the summer of 1844.

The readings from Ralegh's History of the World began about 1842, as we see by the earlier Journals, and the handwriting and some other circumstances about the three drafts of the sketch fix the date as not later than 1844. His poetical scrapbook, into which he copied most of those verses of Ralegh's and Ben Jonson s time that appear in The Week, along with many others, and which Ellery Channing had before him in writing his Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist, opens with three pages copied from the works of Ralegh, and contains in its pages, 130-142, the poetic pieces ascribed to Ralegh in this sketch. It was this commonplace book that Thoreau used in preparing his Week for the press in 1848-49, and nothing appears there of later date. The last extracts therein which can be certainly dated are from the Massachusetts Quarterly Review of September, 1848, on Hindoo Philosophy. The paging of the book in pencil is later, and so is a list of pages which shows what therein Thoreau had used in his papers for printing. The long passages about Alexander and Epaminondas are in the scrap-book at pages 236-7; and that fine passage about the starry influences stands in the scrapbook on page 235, and in the list of used pages is crossed out. The poem of Du Bartas quoted afterwards does not seem to be in the scrap-book.

Of course, since Thoreau wrote on Ralegh, now more than sixty years, much has been learned and printed concerning his problematical career, which still remains in some points doubtful,—in none more so, perhaps, than in the true authorship of the poems ascribed to him by his contemporaries, and long after by Bishop Percy.

Thoreau seems to have been guided in his judgment of Ralegh as the real author of disputed poems, by his inner consciousness of what the knightly courtier ought to have written. Nor did he live long enough to see the fragments of an undoubted poem by Ralegh, The Continuation of Cynthia, which was found after Thoreau's death among the numerous papers of the Cecils at Hatfield House. In its form it is the poorest of all the verses ascribed to Ralegh; yet it has good lines, and a general air of magnanimous regret. It is a fragment in the unmistakable handwriting of Ralegh, with all his peculiarities of spelling, such as "soon" for sun, "yearth" for earth, "sythes" for sighs, and "perrellike" for pearl-like. The Cynthia of which it is a continuation is irrecoverably lost, but was mentioned by Spenser in his Colin Clout's Come Home Again, as early as 1593, where he calls Ralegh "the Shepheard of the Ocean," and says,—

His song was all a lamentable lay
⁠Of great unkindness and of usage hard,
Of Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea,
⁠Which from her presence faultless him debarred.

That, of course, must have been written some time after 1592; the continuation is believed by Archdeacon Hannah to have been written soon after the death of Elizabeth (his Cynthia) and during his own early imprisonment in the Tower. Thoreau's favorite among Ralegh's poems was The Lie, or as he preferred to call it, The Soul's Errand, which was long disputed as Ralegh's, but is now certainly known to be his, by the direct testimony of two contemporary manuscripts, "and the still stronger evidence," says Hannah, "of at least two contemporary answers, written during his lifetime, and reproaching him with the poem, by name or implication." Thoreau had at first taken it for Ralegh's without doubt; then found, in a newspaper of 1843, a version of it ascribed to Joshua Sylvester, the translator of Du Bartas, which led him to doubt its being Ralegh's, and to alter his version of the text. This later version he read at the Concord funeral of John Brown (December 2, 1859), prefacing it with these words: "The well-known verses called The Soul's Errand, supposed by some to have been written by Sir Walter Raleigh, when he was expecting to be executed on the following day, are at least worthy of such an origin, and are equally applicable to the present case. Hear them,"—and he proceeded to read them in my hearing. But on a blank page in the scrap-book he wrote in pencil," Assigned to Raleigh by Percy, as written the night before his execution. But it appeared in Poetical Rhapsody in 1608, yet, as Davison says, may have been written the night before he expected to have been executed in 1603. It is found among Sylvester's Poems, and by Ritson given to Davison. It also occurs in Lord Pembroke's Poems, and exists in two copies in the Harleian MSS."

To this comment, written in 1843-44, Archdeacon Hannah added in 1870, "It can be found in MSS. more than ten years earlier than 1608,—in 1596/1595, or 1593. There are five other claimants, but not one with a case that will bear the slightest examination. For the claim of Richard Edwards we are indebted to a mere mistake of Ellis's; for that of F. Davison to a freak of Ritson's; that of Lord Essex is only known from the correspondence of Percy, who did not believe it; and those of Sylvester and Lord Pembroke are sufficiently refuted by the mutilated character of the copies which were printed among their posthumous writings."

Thoreau evidently had his faith in Ralegh's authorship shaken by the attribution to Sylvester in 1843, and the printing then of the extended (rather than mutilated) copy as found in Sylvester, which he proceeded to compare with his earlier copy. As a result, the verses read by him at the Brown funeral were amended from the Sylvester copy. Hannah has a theory worth citing: "We find grounds for supposing that Ralegh marked each crisis of his his tory by writing some short poem, in which the vanity of life is proclaimed, under an aspect suited to his circumstances and age. His first slight check occurred in 1589, when he went to visit Spenser in Ireland; and more seriously a little later, when his secret marriage sent him to the Tower. The Lie, with its proud, indignant brevity, would then exactly express his angry temper. The Pilgrimage belongs more naturally to a time when he was smarting under the rudeness of the king's attorney at his trial in 1603. The few lines, Even such is Time, mark the calm reality of the now certain doom; they express the thoughts appropriate for the night now known to be indeed the last, when no room remained for bitterness or anger, in the contemplation of immediate and inevitable death."

I may observe that Thoreau adds a little to the tale of the occasion of these lines in the scrap-book where he copies them. He writes, "Sir Walter Raleigh the night before his death." (In some copies thus entitled: "Verses said to have been found in his Bible in the Gatehouse at West minster;" Archbishop Sancroft, who has transcribed the lines, calls them his "Epitaph made by himself, and given to me of him, the night before his suffering.")

The Silent Lover is thought to have been sent to Elizabeth; the Walsingham verses, which Thoreau thought characteristic of Ralegh, do not seem so to me, and Hannah says, "I think it very improbable that Ralegh wrote this ballad." It sounds more like Campion.

As in that chapter of The Service which he has called The Soldier, so in this essay Thoreau shows a decided taste for war as against an inglorious state of peace, and sees little harm in the constant ardor of his hero for a fight against Irish kernes, Spanish war ships, and the armies of Austria and Spain, against which he had contended from his warlike youth, when he absented himself from the university to learn the art of war. Although less inclined, as he grew older, to use the language of campaigns and battle fields, Thoreau never quite gave up this belligerent attitude. He was pugnacious, and rather annoyed by those ostentatious preachers of international peace who mixed themselves in with the anti-slavery and temperance reformers of his period. One such, Henry C. Wright, an aggressive non-resistant, was specially satirized by him in his Journal for June 17, 1853,—the anniversary of Bunker Hill battle, and perhaps chosen on that account to make a demon stration against war in Concord, whose chief reputation had once been that it opened the war of the Revolution. It may be mentioned, parenthetically, in passing, that Thoreau's grandmother, Mary Jones of Weston, daughter of the Tory Colonel Jones of the Provincial militia, on the day of Bunker Hill in 1775 came over from Weston to Concord to carry a basket of cherries and other good things to a Tory brother immured in Concord Jail for bringing in supplies from Halifax to the British troops besieged in Boston. She was but a girl, but she soon married Rev. Asa Dunbar, who also was inclined to be a Tory, and did not join the patriots until he went to reside in Keene, N. H., as a lawyer, giving up his clerical profession, since there were few parishes that would tolerate a minister who was not a sincere patriot. Of the Jones family some were Tories and some patriots, the rest, among them Mrs. Dunbar, were neutral. On the contrary, Thoreau's grand father on the other side was in the Revolutionary service as a privateer.

For whatever reason, this particular peace advocate was not attractive to Thoreau, who thus spoke of him in his Journal, as was first noted by Channing in his Life of Thoreau; "They addressed each other constantly by their Christian names, and rubbed you continually with the greasy cheek of their kindness. I was awfully pestered with the benignity of one of them. . . . He wrote a book called A Kiss for a Blow, and he behaved as if I had given him a blow,—was bent on giving me the kiss,—when there was neither quarrel nor agreement between us. . . . He addressed me as 'Henry' within one minute from the time I first laid eyes on him; and when I spoke he said, with drawling, sultry sympathy, 'Henry, I know all you would say, I understand you perfectly,—you need not explain anything to me.' He could tell in a dark room, with his eyes blinded, and in perfect stillness, if there was one there whom he loved. . . . What a relief to have heard the ring of one healthy, reserved tone." This satirical tone is seldom found in the essay on Ralegh, which, like most of the essays and verses before 1845 are in a serious and often paradoxical spirit, suggesting laughter only by their extravagance, which the young author did not seem to perceive.

The tone of The Service was probably suggested by those numerous discourses on peace and non-resistance to which he was obliged to listen from 1840 to 1848, and which he resented then, as he also did in 1859 when writing with some heat on the capture and martyrdom of John Brown, which he compared to that of Ralegh. "I speak for the slave," he said, "when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. For once the Sharp rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable." He listened with much interest to Brown's account of his fights in Kansas, when I had introduced him to Brown in his father's house at Concord, in February, 1857, and noted down many of their particulars; and when the Civil War came on, he was as earnest as any one that it should be fought to its just conclusion, the destruction of slavery. In this he was unlike his English friend Thomas Cholmondeley, who wrote to him from Shrewsbury, April 23, 1861: "These rumors of wars make me wish that we had got done with this brutal stupidity of war altogether; and I believe, Thoreau, that the human race will at last get rid of it, though, perhaps, not in a creditable way; but such powers will be brought to bear that it will become monstrous even to the French. Dundonald declared to the last that he possessed secrets which, from their tremendous character, would make war impossible. So peace may be begotten from the machinations of evil."

Lord Dundonald, who had fought by sea for the South Americans and the Greeks, was a good sample of a modern Ralegh; but he would not have aroused in Thoreau the interest which he had felt in Ralegh. It was the literary as well as the knightly quality in the Elizabethan that attracted the Concord man of letters; and the burden of this long-lost essay will be found to be chiefly literary. Ralegh, like his friends, Sidney and Spenser, is one of the romantic figures in English literature more admired than read in these later days; they are in dispensable to him who would know all the resources of poesy in our native tongue. I was therefore surprised and rather grieved to hear Dr. Holmes say, as we were returning together to Boston from the break fast given to Mrs. Stowe at Newton, many years since, that he had never read the verses ascribed to Ralegh. Nobody now reads the History of the World,—probably Thoreau was its latest American reader, except those whom some historical task required them to go through with it. He was also the last reader of Davenant's Gondibert, upon which many an adventurous youth has been stranded. But Thoreau, like Emerson and Charles Lamb, whose researches in Elizabethan fields aided him, and are acknowledged in his commonplace book, from 1839 until 1845 made a faithful study of that copious and racy literature that filled the century from Surrey and Wyatt to Crashaw and Vaughan, and in this scrap-book before me more than forty authors of that period are quoted, some of them at much length. The editors of Thoreau's dozen volumes should have had this scrap-book before them when seeking the source of the quotations in which he so abounds.

Let us not seek to overvalue this treasure-trove of an author to whom each successive year brings a new army of readers, and of whom every reader becomes a warm admirer. It is not a finished piece of English like many of his essays; he had not in 1844 reached that perfection in his style, nor that ripeness of thought which Walden and the later writings display. It belongs, rather, with that collection of literary essays with which the bulk of his narrative of The Week is so increased, and its qualities so much enriched. But it shows how early his profound conceptions got a striking expression, and how even earlier his far-reaching judgments on men and things entitled him to the name of scholar and sage.

Few youths of New England ever exhibited sooner in life, or practised more seriously and effectively, the arts and gifts that produce works of permanent literary value. Such is every completed essay of Thoreau that I have seen; and I must now have seen them nearly all. The revelations of his unprinted Journals are now to be tested, upon their publication; but they will not decrease or check his growing fame.

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn


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