Sir Walter Raleigh

by Henry David Thoreau

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Sir Walter Raleigh - Part II

The pleasing poem entitled A Description of the Country's Recreations,8 also printed among the poems of Sir Henry Wotton, is well known. The following, which bears evident marks of his pen, we will quote, from its secure and continent rhythm:


As you came from the holy land
⁠Of Walsingham,
Met you not with my true love
⁠By the way as you came?

How shall I know your true love,
⁠That have met many one,
As I went to the holy land,
⁠That have come, that have gone.

She is neither white nor brown,
⁠But as the heavens fair;
There is none hath a form so divine,
⁠In the earth or the air.

Such a one did I meet, good Sir,
⁠Such an angelic face;
Who like a queen, like a nymph did appear,
⁠By her gait, by her grace:

She hath left me here all alone,
⁠All alone as unknown,
Who sometimes did me lead with herself,
⁠And me loved as her own:

What 's the cause that she leaves you alone,
⁠And a new way doth take:
Who loved you once as her own
⁠And her joy did you make?

I have loved her all my youth,
⁠But now, old as you see,
Love likes not the falling fruit
⁠From the withered tree:

Know that Love is a careless child
⁠And forgets promise past,
He is blind, he is deaf, when he list,
⁠And in faith never fast:

His desire is a dureless content,
⁠And a trustless joy;
He is won with a world of despair,
⁠And is lost with a toy.

Of women-kind such indeed is the love,
⁠Or the word love abused;
Under which, many childish desires
⁠And conceits are excused:

But true love is a durable fire
⁠In the mind ever burning;
Never sick, never old, never dead,
⁠From itself never turning.

The following will be new to many of our readers :


Prais'd be Diana's fair and harmless light;
⁠Prais'd be the dews, wherewith she moists the ground;
Prais'd be her beams, the glory of the night;
⁠Prais'd be her power, by which all powers abound!

Prais'd be her nymphs, with whom she decks the woods;
⁠Prais'd be her knights, in whom true honor lives;
Prais'd be that force by which she moves the floods!
⁠Let that Diana shine, which all these gives!

In heaven, queen she is among the spheres;
⁠She mistress-like, makes all things to be pure;
Eternity in her oft-change she bears;
⁠She, Beauty is; by her, the fair endure.

Time wears her not; she doth his chariot guide;
⁠Mortality below her orb is plac'd;
By her the virtues of the stars down slide;
⁠In her is Virtue's perfect image cast!

A knowledge pure it is her worth to know:
With Circes let them dwell that think not so!

Though we discover in his verses the vices of the courtier, and they are not equally sustained, as if his genius were warped by the frivolous society of the Court, he was capable of rising to unusual heights. His genius seems to have been fitted for short flights of unmatched sweetness and vigor, but by no means for the sustained loftiness of the epic poet. One who read his verses would say that he had not grown to be the man he promised. They have occasionally a strength of character and heroic tone rarely expressed or appreciated; and powers and excellences so peculiar, as to be almost unique specimens of their kind in the language. Those which have reference to his death have been oftenest quoted, and are the best. The Soul's Errand 9 deserves to be remembered till her mission is accomplished in the world.

We quote the following, not so well known, with some omissions, from the commencement of—


Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,
⁠My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
⁠My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory, (hope's true gage)
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body's balmer,
⁠No other balm will here be given,
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
⁠Travels to the land of heaven,
Over all the silver mountains,
Where do spring those nectar fountains:

And I there will sweetly kiss
The happy bowl of peaceful bliss,
Drinking mine eternal fill
Flowing on each milky hill.
My soul will be adry before,
But after, it will thirst no more.

In that happy, blissful day,
⁠More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,
That have cast off their rags of clay,
⁠And walk apparell'd fresh like me.

But he wrote his poems, after all, rather with ships and fleets, and regiments of men and horse. At his bidding, navies took their place in the channel, and even from prison he fitted out fleets with which to realize his golden dreams, and invited his companions to fresh adventures.

Raleigh might well be studied if only for the excellence of his style, for he is remarkable even in the midst of so many masters. All the distinguished writers of that period possess a greater vigor and naturalness than the more modern, and when we read a quotation from one of them in the midst of a modern authority, we seem to have come suddenly upon a greener ground and greater depth and strength of soil. It is as if a green bough were laid across the page, and we are refreshed as if by the sight of fresh grass in midwinter or early spring. You have constantly the warrant of life and experience in all you read. The little that is said is supplied by implication of the much that was done. The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience; but our false and florid sentences have only the tints of flowers without their sap or roots. Where shall we look for standard English but to the words of a standard man? The word which is best said came very near not being spoken at all; for it is cousin to a deed which would have been better done. It must have taken the place of a deed by some urgent necessity, even by some misfortune, so that the truest writer will be some captive knight after all. And perhaps the fates had such a design, when, having stored Raleigh so richly with the substance of life and experience, they made him a fast prisoner, and compelled him to make his words his deeds, and transfer to his expression the emphasis and sincerity of his action.

The necessity of labor, and conversation with many men and things, to the scholar, is rarely well remembered. Steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is the best method of removing palaver out of one's style both of talking and writing. If he has worked hard from morning till night, though he may have grieved that he could not be watching the train of his thoughts during that time, yet the few hasty lines which at evening record his day's experience will be more musical and true, than his freest but idle fancy could have furnished. He will not lightly dance at his work who has wood to cut and cord before nightfall in the short days of winter, but every stroke will be husbanded and ring soberly through the wood;10 and so will the stroke of that scholar's pen, when at evening this records the story of the day, ring soberly on the ear of the reader long after the echoes of his axe have died away. The scholar may be sure he writes the tougher truths for the calluses on his palms. They give firmness to the sentence. We are often astonished at the force and precision of style to which hard-working men unpractised in writing easily attain, when required to make the effort; as if sincerity and plainness, those ornaments of style, were better taught on the farm or in the workshop than in the schools. The sentences written by such rude hands are nervous and tough, like hardened thongs, the sinews of the deer, or the roots of the pine. The scholar might frequently emulate the propriety and emphasis of the farmer's call to his team, and confess, if that were written, it would surpass his labored sentences.

From the weak and flimsy periods of the politician and literary man we are glad to turn even to the description of work, the simple record of the month's labor in the farmer's almanac, to restore our tone and spirits. We like that a sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end. The scholar requires hard labor to give an impetus to his thought; he will learn to grasp the pen firmly so, and wield it grace fully and effectually as an axe or sword. When we consider the weak and nerveless periods of some literary men, who perchance in feet and inches come up to the standard of their race, and are not deficient in girth also, we are amazed at the immense sacrifice of thews and sinews. What! these proportions, these bones, and this their work! Hands which could have felled an ox have hewed this fragile matter which would not have tasked a lady's fingers. Can this be a stalwart man's work, who has a marrow in his back and a tendon Achilles in his heel? They who set up Stonehenge did somewhat, if they only laid out their strength for once, and stretched themselves.

Yet after all the truly efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task, surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure, and then do but what he likes best. He is anxious only about the kernels of time. Though the hen should set all day she could lay only one egg, and besides, she would not have picked up the materials for another.

A perfectly healthy sentence is extremely rare. But for the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought. As if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. The most attractive sentences are perhaps not the wisest, but the surest and soundest. They are spoken firmly and conclusively, as if the author had a right to know what he says; and if not wise, they have at least been well learned. At least he does not stand on a rolling stone, but is well assured of his footing; and if you dispute their doctrine, you will yet allow that there is truth in their assurance. Raleigh's are of this sort, spoken with entire satisfaction and heartiness. They are not so much philosophy as poetry. With him it was always well done and nobly said. His learning was in his hand, and he carried it by him and used it as adroitly as his sword. Aubrey says, "He was no slug; without doubt had a wonderful waking spirit, and great judgment to guide it." He wields his pen as one who sits at ease in his chair, and has a healthy and able body to back his wits, and not a torpid and diseased one to fetter them. In whichever hand is the pen we are sure there is a sword in the other. He sits with his armor on, and with one ear open to hear if the trumpet sound, as one who has stolen a little leisure from the duties of a camp; and we are confident that the whole man, as real and palpable as an Englishman can be, sat down to the writing of his books, and not some curious brain only. Such a man's mere daily exercise in literature might well attract us, and Cecil has said, "He can toil terribly."

Raleigh seems to have been too genial and loyal a soul to resist the temptations of a court; but if to his genius and culture could have been added the temperament of George Fox or Oliver Cromwell, perhaps the world would have had reason longer to remember him. He was, however, the most generous nature that could be drawn into the precincts of a court, and carried the courtier's life almost to the highest pitch of magnanimity and grace of which it was capable. He was liberal and generous as a prince, that is, within bounds; brave, chivalrous, heroic, as a knight in armor—but not as a defenceless man. His was not the heroism of a Luther, but of a Bayard, and had more of grace than of honest truth in it. He had more taste than appetite. There may be something petty in a refined taste,—it easily degenerates into effeminacy. It does not consider the broadest use, and is not content with simple good and bad, but is often fastidious, and curious, or nice only.

His faults, as we have hinted before, were those of a courtier and a soldier. In his counsels and aphorisms we see not unfrequently the haste and rashness of the soldier, strangely mingled with the wisdom of the philosopher. Though his philosophy was not wide nor profound, it was continually giving way to the generosity of his nature, and he was not hard to be won to the right.

What he touches he adorns by a greater humanity and native nobleness, but he touches not the truest nor deepest. He does not in any sense unfold the new, but embellishes the old, and with all his promise of originality he never was quite original, or steered his own course. He was of so fair and susceptible a nature, rather than broad or deep, that he delayed to slake his thirst at the nearest and most turbid wells of truth and beauty; and his homage to the least fair and noble left no room for homage to the All-fair. The misfortune and incongruity of the man appear in the fact that he was at once the author of the Maxims of State and The Soul's Errand.

When we reconsider what we have said in the foregoing pages, we hesitate to apply any of their eulogy to the actual and historical Raleigh, or any of their condemnation to that ideal Raleigh which he suggests. For we must know the man of history as we know our contemporaries, not so much by his deeds, which often belie his real character, as by the expectation he begets in us—and there is a bloom and halo about the character of Raleigh which defies a close and literal scrutiny, and robs us of our critical acumen. With all his heroism, he was not heroic enough; with all his manliness, he was servile and dependent; with all his aspirations, he was ambitious. He was not upright nor constant, yet we would have trusted him; he could flatter and cringe, yet we should have respected him; and he could accept a bribe, yet we should confidently have appealed to his generosity.

Such a life is useful for us to contemplate as suggesting that a man is not to be measured by the virtue of his described actions, or the wisdom of his expressed thoughts merely, but by that free character he is, and is felt to be, under all circumstances. Even talent is respectable only when it indicates a depth of character unfathomed. Surely it is better that our wisdom appear in the constant success of our spirits than in our business, or the maxims which fall from our lips merely. We want not only a revelation, but a nature behind to sustain it. Many silent, as well as famous, lives have been the result of no mean thought, though it was never adequately expressed nor conceived; and perhaps the most illiterate and unphilosophical mind may yet be accustomed to think to the extent of the noblest action. We all know those in our own circle who do injustice to their entire character in their conversation and in writing, but who, if actually set over against us, would not fail to make a wiser impression than many a wise thinker and speaker.

We are not a little profited by any life which teaches us not to despair of the race; and such effect has the steady and cheerful bravery of Raleigh. To march sturdily through life, patiently and resolutely looking grim defiance at one's foes, that is one way; but we cannot help being more attracted by that kind of heroism which relaxes its brows in the presence of danger, and does not need to maintain itself strictly, but, by a kind of sympathy with the universe, generously adorns the scene and the occasion, and loves valor so well that itself would be the defeated party only to behold it; which is as serene and as well pleased with the issue as the heavens which look down upon the field of battle. It is but a lower height of heroism when the hero wears a sour face. We fear that much of the heroism which we praise nowadays is dyspeptic. When we consider the vast Xerxean army of reformers in these days, we cannot doubt that many a grim soul goes silent, the hero of some small intestine war; and it is somewhat to begin to live on cornbread solely, for one who has before lived on bolted wheat;—but of this sort surely are not the deeds to be sung. These are not the Arthurs that inflame the imaginations of men. All fair action is the product of enthusiasm, and nature herself does nothing in the prose mood, though sometimes grimly with poetic fury, and at others humorously. There is enthusiasm in the sunrise and the summer, and we imagine that the shells on the shore take new layers from year to year with such rapture as the bard writes his poems.

We would fain witness a heroism which is literally illustrious, whose daily life is the stuff of which our dreams are made; so that the world shall regard less what it does than how it does it; and its actions unsettle the common standards, and have a right to be done, however wrong they may be to the moralist.

Mere gross health and cheerfulness are no slight attraction, and some biographies have this charm mainly. For the most part the best man's spirit makes a fearful sprite to haunt his grave, and it adds not a little therefore to the credit of Little John, the celebrated follower of Robin Hood, reflecting favorably on the character of his life, that his grave was "long celebrous for the yielding of excellent whetstones."

A great cheerfulness indeed have all great wits and heroes possessed, almost a profane levity to such as understood them not, but their religion had the broader basis of health and permanence. For the hero, too, has his religion, though it is the very opposite to that of the ascetic. It demands not a narrower cell but a wider world. He is perhaps the very best man of the world; the poet active, the saint wilful; not the most godlike, but the most manlike. There have been souls of a heroic stamp for whom this world seemed expressly made; as if this fair creation had at last succeeded, for it seems to be thrown away on the saint. Such seem to be an essential part of their age if we consider them in time, and of the scenery if we consider them in Nature. They lie out be fore us ill-defined and uncertain, like some scraggy hillside or pasture, which varies from day to day and from hour to hour, with the revolutions of Nature, so that the eye of the forester never rests twice upon the same scene; one knows not what may occur,—he may hear a fox bark or a partridge drum. They are planted deep in Nature and have more root than others. They are earth-born (γηγευεῖς), as was said of the Titans. They are brothers of the sun and moon, they be long, so to speak, to the natural family of man. Their breath is a kind of wind, their step like that of a quadruped, their moods the seasons, and they are as serene as Nature. Their eyes are deep-set like moles or glowworms, they move free and unconstrained through Nature as her guests, their motions easy and natural as if their course were already determined for them;—as of rivers flowing through valleys, not as somewhat finding a place in Nature, but for whom a place is already found. We love to hear them speak though we do not hear what they say. The very air seems forward to modulate itself into speech for them, and their words are of its own substance, and fall naturally on the ear, like the rustling of leaves and the crackling of the fire. They have the heavens for their abettors, for they never stood from under them, and they look at the stars with an answering ray. The distinctions of better and best, sense and nonsense, seem trivial and petty, when such great healthy indifferences come along. We lay aside the trick of thinking well to attend to their thoughtless and happy natures, and are inclined to show a divine politeness and heavenly good-breeding, for they compel it. They are great natures. It takes a good deal to support them. Theirs is no thin diet. The very air they breathe seems rich, and, as it were, perfumed.

They are so remarkable as to be least remarked at first, since they are most in harmony with the time and place, and if we wonder at all it will be at ourselves and not at them. Mountains do not rise perpendicularly, but the lower eminences hide the higher, and we at last reach their top by a gentle acclivity. We must abide a long time in their midst and at their base, as we spend many days at the Notch of the White Mountains in order to be impressed by the scenery. Let us not think that Alexander will conquer Asia the first time we are in troduced to him, though smaller men may be in haste to re-enact their exploits then.

⁠"Would you have
Such an Herculean actor in the scene,
And not his hydra?"
⁠"They must sweat no less
To fit their properties than to express their parts."

The presence of heroic souls enhances the beauty and ampleness of Nature herself. Where they walk, as Vergil says of the abodes of the blessed,—

Largior hic campos aether et lumine vestit
Purpureo: solemque suum, sua sidera norunt.

Here a more copious air invests the fields, and clothes with purple light; and they know their own sun and their own stars.11

But, alas! What is Truth? That which we know not. What is Beauty? That which we see not. What is Heroism? That which we are not. It is in vain to hang out flags on a day of rejoicing,—fresh bunting, bright and whole; better the soiled and torn remnant which has been borne in the wars.

We have considered a fair specimen of an Englishman in the sixteenth century; but it behoves us to be fairer specimens of American men in the nineteenth. The gods have given man no constant gift, but the power and liberty to act greatly. How many wait for health and warm weather to be heroic and noble! We are apt to think there is a kind of virtue which need not be heroic and brave,—but in fact virtue is the deed of the bravest; and only the hardy souls venture upon it, for it deals in what we have no experience, and alone does the rude pioneer work of the world. In winter is its campaign, and it never goes into quarters. "Sit not down," said Sir Thomas Browne, "in the popular seats and common level of virtues, but endeavor to make them heroical. Offer not only peace-offerings, but holocausts, unto God."

In our lonely chambers at night we are thrilled by some far-off serenade within the mind, and seem to hear the clarion sound and clang of corselet and buckler from many a silent hamlet of the soul, though actually it may be but the rattling of some farmer's waggon rolling to market against the morrow.12


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