Monday, 14 April 2014

Gosh, you've got nice legs!

I first discovered the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh when I did a unit on "Shakespeare and His Contemporaries" in my second year of uni. His poetry has a beautiful and haunting melancholy in its words that has moved me to tears. He seemed to have an outlook more bleak and hopeless than many of his contemporaries, something which (if we trust his poetic voice) can be attributed mainly to his despair in the world he observed. Raleigh lived in an age when society was pushed back and forth between religions on pain of death. This caused some of the more pensive to reflect on the nature of those who trifled with something which was supposed to be sacred and personal. As the Norton Anthology of English Literature puts it, 
"In the space of a single lifetime, England had gone officially from Roman Catholicism, to Catholicism under the supreme headship of the English king, to guarded Protestantism, to a more radical Protestantism, to a renewed and aggressive Roman Catholicism, and finally to Protestantism again. Each of these shifts was accompanied by danger, persecution, and death. It was enough to make people wary. Or skeptical. Or extremely agile."
Raleigh chose skepticism. Not of his god, but rather of the value of the material world. He saw death as the only hope and the only truism in the world: "Only we die in earnest - that's no jest." Raleigh penned his own epitaph while imprisoned in the tower of London, awaiting his death. To me, it is one of the most beautiful things ever written:
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of out days:
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.
Now, I'm not a decidedly religious person, but I definitely want this read at my funeral. Raleigh was painfully aware of the transience of this world and constantly peering though the clouds into the next one. Of course, for someone who thought that the grave would shut up the story of his days, he left an incredible legacy.

Around about now, you might be looking at the title of the post and wondering if I'm even more confused than your average book nerd. Well, here's the thing: long before I encountered the melancholy Sir Walter Raleigh of his poetry, I met another version. The first Sir Walter Raleigh that I met stood immovably in my mind and stubbornly refused to be evicted by his brooding original. I grew up on (slightly inappropriate) BBC comedy: Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones....and Blackadder. Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's series contained a Sir Walter Raleigh whose idea of the story of "The Time I Fell Into The Water And Was Almost Eaten By A Hammerhead Shark" was: "I fell into the water, and I was almost eaten by a shark! And the funny thing was, its head was exactly the same shape as a hammer!" Even now, as I read Raleigh's words, "Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies, A mortal foe and enemy to rest," the picture in my mind is of Miranda Richardsons' Queenie simpering at his knees and interjecting, "oh, my bedroom's just upstairs you know!" I just can't shake him.

There were of course, similarities between these two Raleighs who wrestle for supremacy in my imagination. For one thing, he did introduce the humble potato to Ireland, and he was a very great favorite with Queen Elizabeth - a circumstance that has sparked much historical speculation about whether he ever actually discovered if her bedroom really was just upstairs. He also fell out of favor with Elizabeth in later years; although it wasn't because she was "completely bored with explorers", but rather because he seduced and married one of her ladies-in-waiting: about the most dangerous thing you could possibly do in Elizabethan England. However, there were also great differences: the most obvious being that, while Queenie's Raleigh was a bumbling, pompous moron, Queen Elizabeth's Raleigh was brilliant and successful, not only in composition, but also as a soldier, scientist, historian, courtier, philosopher and, of course, colonist and explorer of the new and unknown world.

There is, however, one historical quirk that seems fit for the Raleigh of Richard Curtis, and yet belongs to the troubled Raleigh of whose legs we have no particular record. After his death, Raleigh's head was embalmed and given to his wife. She kept it with her at all times for the remaining TWENTY-SIX YEARS of her life. It was then given to their son, who held onto it until he, too, died in 1666. It then finally came to rest in the earth and dust, forty-eight years after the rest of him. That's too ridiculous for even Mr Curtis to come up with.

If you would like to read any more of Sir Walter Raleigh's poetry, there's a good selection at:
Otherwise, I strongly suggest you meet his incarnation in episode 3 of Blackadder II.

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