The following poem reflects the political attitudes and literary evaluations of at least one person sometime after 29 October 1618 when Sir Walter Ralegh was executed as a result of demands of the Spanish ambassador against a British expedition to Spanish-held South America. Ralegh's expedition (1616-18) in search of gold in the Orinoco region was a failure, and eventuated in the destruction by fire of the settlement of San Tomas. The poem is documentary evidence such as "old" historical critics are alleged to privilege, but it is also contemporary evidence such as "new" historicists have analyzed as political yardsticks. The unknown author's political attitude directs us to appreciate the court intrigues beneath the event, the populace's perspective (if the author does reflect group feelings) toward what has created the event and what then occurred governmentally, and offers an epitome of Ralegh's position as creative writer. Of further interest to the literary scholar is the use of a well-known astronomical event as metaphor, one that implies common belief in, or at least acceptance of, superstition. Whether the author, like Owen Glendower in Shakespeare's I Henry IV, really believed such a fiction or was only employing it as metaphoric sign, we should recognize the apparent predictive viability of astronomic events for the people of the early seventeenth century. The poem is quoted from the Welbeck MS, Pw V 37, p. 14, in the Duke of Portland Papers, owned by the University of Nottinghamshire.(n1) It is a copy made sometime around 1630(n2) by a professional scribe, who organized the poems under generic rubrics, this being the first given under "Epitaphs."
On Sr Walter Raleigh, who was
The manuscript collects poems by various authors including John Donne and Richard Corbett (suggesting the author may have been one of their coterie) and Ralegh himself. It includes other poems on Ralegh and poems on the comet, such as "On Queene Annes death not long after the appearing of the Comett. 1618" (beginning "`Twas to invite this guest God sent this starre," p. 3),(n3) "The Kings Verses on the Comett. 1618 ("Yee men of great Britaine why gaze yee so," p. 174), "On the Comett that appeared ao. 1618" ("Some say (faire Lady) that the blazing Starre," p. 178), "On the Comett. 1618" ("A Comett blazing, and as yen no booke," assigned to "Mr John Eglesfeild," p. 181), "A Letter sent to Mr Alisbury concerning a Comett that appeared ao Di. 1618. Written, and dated at Oxford, but directed to Sion" ("My Brother, and more hadst then been mine," assigned to "Dr. Corbett," p. 312). Poems on Ralegh's death, common in various manuscripts, often allude to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, also a former favorite of Elizabeth's and also beheaded.(n4) During the late 1580s and 1590s both men were frequently rivals in various political, military, and personal affairs. Ralegh was present at Essex's trial but apparently not physically close to him at his execution in 1601, despite some statements that have been made to the contrary.(n5)
References within the poem are to Ralegh's own poetry (line 4), to his various expeditions to Spain and to the Spanish New World, including the disastrous one to the Orinoco, cited before (1. 4), to his actual performance in literature, and to his heroic valor (11. 5-10). "Prodigy" (1. 12) means "portent" or "prophetic sign"; his execution was accompanied by the comet soon after and foretold political machinations to follow. The "upstart Starr" (1. 14), the "Meteor" of line 18, was a comet (more properly a nova) sighted in the constellation Ophiucus (meaning "serpent-holder," thus associating it with baneful things) in 1618 by Dr. John Bainbridge, who called it a portent of Queen Anne's death (which occurred on 2 March 1619). It was likewise deemed portentous because of the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War at that time. The author of this tribute to "our Sunne," muses that although the comet shone bright, it could not outshine or replace Ralegh.
England was drawn into the Thirty Years' War through King James's attempts at power politics, his marrying his daughter Elizabeth to Frederick, Elector of the Palatine, in 1613, and his continued relations with Spain, whose ambassador proposed marriage of his son Charles to the Infanta. The comet, as a prodigy of the devastating series of wars, the author seems to imply, had tried to aid England as had Ralegh in his oppositions to Spain, but it was "outvied" and "straight was done." No "Meteor could outshine the Sunne": it could not warn successfully anymore than Ralegh could. The references to Ralegh as "Englands Muse" may call up his unfinished poem "Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea" ("The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia"); he was, in any case, a poet "whose name acquired a romantic fascination for posterity."(n6) The last line recounts the beheading, but the "Balme" that is spilled implies the elixir or panacea which Ralegh's wise mind might have proposed to solve the political difficulties of the times, especially those with Spain. Now, ironically, he was beheaded to placate the Spanish and, even more ironically, on a trumped up charge of conspiring with Spain. Further, there may be an allusion to the "Guiana Balsma" which figured in Ralegh's chemical experiments when he was incarcerated in the Tower. He sent the drug, to no avail, to try to save Prince Henry, who died 6 November 1612 from typhoid fever.(n7)
This poem presents us with a seemingly typical contemporary view of Sir Walter Ralegh by one not involved in the great actions of state; beneath its surface lies an antagonism toward James I and his advisers. The problems that first beset James in the 1620s and then later Charles I were already in place in the populace's mind in the decade before.
(n1.) The poem is also found in the cognate Thomas Smythe manuscript owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a. 103, f. 7v. There are various differences in accidentals, and the date is omitted from the title and "one" is erroneously omitted from the last line.
(n2.) This is the general date assigned the manuscript in Index of English Literary Manuscripts. Volume 1, 1450-1625. Part 2, Douglas to Wyatt, compiled by Peter Beal (London, 1980). The manuscript is discussed by H. Harvey Wood in "A Seventeenth-Century Manuscript of Poems by Donne and Others," Essays and Studies 16 (1930), 179-90. It also has been known as the Taverham MS.
(n3.) This is a variant of King James's popular elegy beginning "Thee to invite the great God sent his starr" (found, for example, in Folger MS V.a.262, p. 55). The variant also appears in the Thomas Smythe MS.
(n4.) For example, "On Sir Walter Rawleigh," from Bodleian MS English poetical e.14, f. 95v reversed, the first two lines of which are: "Essex thy death's revenged; Lo here I lie / To say we two died of the same disease."
(n5.) Ralegh said: "My Lord of Essex did not see my face when he suffred; ffor I was a farre of at the Armory, where I see him but he see not me" (quoted from R. H. Bowers, "Ralegh's Last Speech: The `Elms' document," RES 2 , 213).
(n6.) Agnes Latham, ed., The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh (London, 1951), p. xxiv.
(n7.) Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theatre (London, 1980), p. 68. For this allusion and other information I sincerely thank Professor Steven May.
By John T. Shawcross, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY