Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Epitaph for a Buccaneer

Seeking a model for that perennially self-doubting genus, the English Squire, I stumbled upon the name of Sir Walter Raleigh, a figure who lived in my memory from schooldays as that courteous gentleman who laid his cloak across a rain-puddle to protect the Queen's ankles from getting wet, but then turned out to be a pirate, and the man who first brought the poison of tobacco into Europe.

Raleigh was a scion of a most distinguished, though by his day somewhat deliquescent family. One of his cousins was Sir Richard Grenville, the naval commander who explored the southern continent of America in his ship the "Revenge", and died fighting yet another sea-battle against the Spanish; his younger half-brother was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who likewise took to the seas, and made Newfoundland one of the first outposts of the new British Empire, a term coined by John Dee, the original 007.

Walter was a native of Sidmouth in Devon, a graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, a volunteer in the Huguenot cause in France, and then a commissioned warrior in Ireland in the service of the Queen's favourite, Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Raleigh rather replaced Dudley in the Queen's esteem when Dudley's secret marriage to Amy Robsart reached the ears of the court; she knighted him in 1585, endowed him with lands, gave him the monopoly on exporting woolen broadcloths and a senior rank in the navy, and her personal support when he decided he would stand for Parliament.

It was Raleigh's American expeditions which established the colony of Virginia (Roanoke Island its name, it is now in North Carolina) and which brought back to England both potatoes and syphilis as well as tobacco.

Then the Earl of Essex usurped him as the Queen's favourite. Raleigh retreated to Ireland, where he became a key figure in the colonisation of Munster and the north by Protestants; he also became a friend of Edmund Spenser and wrote "The Ocean's Love To Cynthia" – his response to Spenser's "The Fairie Queen" – while staying with Spenser at Kilcolman.

When Raleigh returned to court it was as a buccaneer against the Spanish; Tennyson's poem "Revenge" is rooted in Raleigh's treatise on the flight of that ship - his cousin Richard Grenville's. But part of being a true English Squire is the fall from grace – if English heroes do not fall of their own accord, there is always someone waiting in the wings to push them. And the English fall is sexual, always sexual. As Dudley, so Raleigh; Bessy Throckmorton the lady-in-waiting in Raleigh's bed. Not that the Queen wanted him in her bed, but envy is envy, and to the Tower he did go, then out of court for long years, until the capture of the Madre de Dias with huge amounts of Spanish treasure compelled the Queen to send for him again.

The dream of gold had captivated Raleigh by this time. Spanish gold, and the contagious Spanish dream of gold from El Dorado in particular. In 1595 he left Bessy, now his wife, at Sherborne, and set off on his Argo, first to Trinidad, then along the Orinoco. So the last years of Elizabeth's reign saw him restored to favour, fighting the Spanish alongside Essex, Captain of the Guard at court, governor of Jersey. Then Elizabeth died, and the vultures squabbling over the fleshy remains poisoned the new ruler against Raleigh. Her death at Richmond was on March 24th, 1603; Raleigh was arrested on July 17th, the speed a sign of his importance. Lord Cobham made, and then retracted, eight separate accusations against him. Defending himself in court at Winchester, Raleigh was by all accounts superb. He was sentenced to the scaffold, and was on that scaffold, waiting to be executed, when he learned that he had been granted the clemency of life imprisonment, within the Tower of London.

Life meant thirteen years, which he dedicated to science and history, undertaking chemical experiments and writing a first volume of what he intended to be a "History of the World"; but he only got as far as Rome, and actually missed out about three million of the most interesting years before that. Other writings of the period include "The Prerogative of Parliaments" and "The Cabinet Council", the latter of which was published by the young and still unknown John Milton.

Released from the Tower in 1616, he made one last journey up the Orinoco, still seeking the legendary golden city of Manoa and hoping to discover a new gold mine for King James. But he was wounded in the pillage of San Tomé, and came home a disillusioned and disaffected man. Not half so disillusioned as King James however, who re-imposed the death sentence previously commuted. Raleigh was beheaded at Whitehall on October 29th, 1618. It was in prison, awaiting execution, that he wrote the epitaph which is the real reason for my accompanying him to this page.

The Author’s Epitaph, Made By Himselfe

                               Even such is Time, which takes in trust

                               Our Youth, our Joys, and all we have,
                               And payes us but with age and dust,
                               Who in the dark and silent grave,
                               When we have wandred all our wayes,
                               Shuts up the story of our dayes:
                               And from which Earth, and Grave, and Dust,
                               The Lord shall raise me up I trust.

The form and style and manner conform to the conventions of the day. Compare Thomas Nashe, writing at the same date: 

                               Adieu, farewell earths blisse,
                               This world uncertaine is,
                               Fond are lifes lustfull joyes,
                               Death proves them all but toyes,
                               None from his dartes can flye,
                               I am sick, I must dye:
                               Lord have mercy on us.

Aside from the quality of the verse (Raleigh's is mediocre where Nashe's is simply indifferent), and its length (Raleigh limits himself to this single stanza, where Nashe runs on as mawkishly and self-repeatingly for a further five), there is the genuine quality of the conceit that underpins the Raleigh epitaph, and which once again confirms that badly-written prose and poetry may still be memorable, provided that it has something meritorious to say. 

Like most of his contemporaries, Hamlets all, Nashe holds a ham-actor's wrist to his forehead and plays a Horatio scene with death, mistakenly identifying the name Horatio with heroism (that was Horatius; Horatio was Hamlet's companion in the grave scene where he dug up Yorick's skull), and incanting his self-pitying "Alas poor Life, I knew him well…" 

But not so Raleigh. The opening phrase seems to shrug its shoulders, acceptant of the inevitable calling-in of the long-overdue debt on which much capital has nonetheless been made, and with interest. Where Nashe and Hamlet rue and mawk, Raleigh presses his tongue firmly to his cheek, and gives his penny to the ferryman without serious expectation, but still without abandoning hope. This, surely, is the way to go.

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