If Shakespeare portrays Essex as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida then it is Raleigh who is Ulysses. Ulysses, that Odysseus who fights in distant battles and survives; who voyages among marvels and returns; whose courage is never in doubt; whose intelligence is second only to Nestor the Wise; who is cunning and proud, loyal and resilient. Odysseus is a man of fate. The Goddess is always with him. Men of fate are pious and conventional as far as the deities are concerned. For Raleigh to be accused, as he was, of atheism is as ridiculous as for an Odysseus to be accused of slighting Athene. She is his destiny. She both protects and assures. She assists survival. Odysseus always endures, and so Raleigh, even at the end, after the last disastrous voyage to Guiana, when his son was killed, when his hopes were in ruins. He does not deviate from his fate. He returns to face whatever the gods’ throw of the dice will bring.
Raleigh is both the young glittering Court favourite, the poet of the moon goddess, and also the seasoned warrior, the grizzled veteran, the expert sailor, the commander of men. His stratagems in war are often successful. His wit and intellect provoke his age. Odysseus is the archetype of the individual man, the lone venturer, who against the odds makes out. He comes from the smallest place, Ithaca, as Raleigh came from a farmhouse in Devon. He wins what he wins not from birth but from talent, from ability. Odysseus ‘of the nimble wits’. And he is the hero of a story. His life is a tale told. He goes on having adventures when the rest of the heroes vanish from the stage. He lives on beyond the epic into the novel, as Raleigh lives on beyond the Armada and Cadiz into the world of democracy and the new science. He is mind, which always finds another path, like the waters of the ocean.
Like mind he is not always respected. He is not the glorious Achilles. He has his detractors, fearful of his cunning. ‘What boots it to swear the fox?’ cries Essex when Raleigh appears at the trial to give evidence against him. The Devon fox, capable of displaying wiliness, and lithe energy, of evading his pursuers, of scheming in the jaws of death.
He too has a Penelope, Elizabeth Throckmorton. He courts and incurs trouble and disgrace by marrying her. He encounters other women, fathers illegitimate children, but always comes back to her, she who is in turn endlessly loyal. The tenderness of Odysseus’s reunion with Penelope, the recognition of the wanderer returned, is matched by the tenderness of Raleigh’s letters to his wife, and hers on his behalf. If Raleigh was, in his poetry, a master of the false affection, of courtly love, he was, in his life, an exemplar of true affection and the reality of mutual love.
There are these multiple images of Raleigh in the glass of history, as there are all those of Odysseus in Homer. The ‘sacker of cities’, the father and husband, the speaker ‘more eloquent than Nestor himself’ as Ovid says, the wily fox, the courageous soldier, the voyager into empty seas, the prisoner of Circe and Calypso, the beloved of the gods even in the manner of his dying. Always ready for another adventure, another turn of fate. Always returning, always making a comeback.
Odysseus means The Victim of Enmity, named so by his grandfather, Autolycus. Sisyphus had conceived him by Anticleia the daughter of the arch-thief. Autolycus promised that if Odysseus ever came to Mount Parnassus to reproach him for enmity towards him, he would give him a share of his possessions. He duly arrived, and hunting with his uncles was gashed in the thigh by a wild boar and scarred for life. So he is also Ulysses, the man wounded in the thigh, the survivor of an ancient death appropriate to sacred kings.
One is reminded of the portrait of Raleigh after Cadiz, dated 1598, by an unknown artist. The forty-five year old commander at the height of his powers, hand on gold-hilted sword, in a dark tunic sewn with pearls, a map of Cadiz behind him, his right hand resting on a cane. He had been wounded towards the end of the engagement. He had suggested that the English ships go up to the harbour and batter the Spanish galleons. Lord Admiral Howard agreed. Essex and he would command the main body, Raleigh the vanguard. On board Warspite he showed his usual courage. ‘Always I must, without Glory, say for myself, that I held single in the head of all.’ That might stand as his epitaph. Here, for once, he and Essex put aside their rivalry and enmity. ‘I declared....I would board, with the Queen’s ship, for it was the same loss to burn or sink, for I must endure the one’. ‘The Earl, finding it not in his power to command fear, told me, that whatsoever I did, he would second me in person upon his honour.’ So Achilles and Odysseus at their closest.
Warping alongside the St Philip they forced the Spanish ship aground ‘tumbling into the sea heaps of soldiers so thick as if coals had been poured out of a sack’ The St Philip and the St Thomas took fire. ‘The spectacle was very lamentable on their side; for many drowned themselves; many half-burnt leapt into the water...many swimming with grievous wounds stricken under water and put out of their pain; and withal so huge a fire and such tearing of ordnance...when the fire came to ‘em, as if any man had a desire to see hell itself, it was there most lively figured.’ John Donne who was there wrote an epigram on the incident ‘They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drowned.’ Essex went north with the army to storm Cadiz. Raleigh watched from deck, crippled by a wound in the leg ‘a grievous blow, interlaced and deformed with splinters’. So he was Ulysses, also, carried ashore on the shoulders of his men ‘fit for nought but ease at that time’.
Like Odysseus, Raleigh was born to be Fortune’s survivor, not following the sweep of a great arc, but ‘tost .. too and fro to greatnesse’ as Sir Robert Naunton said, and like Odysseus, who struggled ashore wound round only with Leucothea’s veil to find sanctuary among the Phaeacians, eventually brought ‘down to little more than to that wherein she found him, (a bare gentleman).’ His strength and courage would always be put to the test.
He had the capacity to endure good and bad times, to rise above them through his character and intellect, to be aware of opportunity and danger, and at the last to dismiss fear and make an end which no one who saw it would forget. Raleigh is never indifferent to events. He is always driven by grand passions, by grandiose schemes, by an ambition to achieve. But it is his endurance rather than his achievements that impress the most. His resilience, that resilience of Odysseus who struggling to shore finds shelter for the night under the bushes in a heap of dry leaves. Odysseus is always potentially ‘the bare gentleman’, the beggar in disguise, the shipwrecked wanderer who has to grasp the knees of his hosts to find succour, unrecognised in his own house except by those who truly know him, relying always on his skill, his eloquence, his mind, his endurance.
And then there are those moments when Athene shines on him, clothing him in a sudden splendour, renewing his youth and vigour, quickening his spirit. It is those moments of splendour amongst the passages of suffering which Raleigh knows. They make him great in one way, as the sufferings do in another. They are the independent man’s attributes ‘single in the head of all’.
Raleigh’s mother was Katherine Champernowne. She was the niece of Kat Ashley, companion, in adversity, to Elizabeth before she became Queen. He was half-brother to the Gilberts, the sons of Katherine’s first marriage. He was ‘well descended and of good alliance’. The Ashley link may have given him a route to court. His family was staunch Protestant in a Catholic Devon, which also made him hostile to Spain. He was born at the farmhouse of Hayes Barton near East Budleigh in 1554, and tried to buy the place back when he was thirty. It is a few miles from the sea. He was educated for a while at Oxford, but always was ‘an indefatigable reader, whether by sea or land’. He stored his mind with knowledge. He gained experience.
Travelling abroad as a young man, he fought with the Huguenots in France, and the savagery he saw taught him about civil war and its evils, acquainted him with a ruthless streak in his own nature. Odysseus setting sail from Troy on his long way home stormed Ismarus and left a pall of smoke above the burning city, sparing from slaughter only Apollo’s priest. With Diomedes at Troy he had gone out throat cutting in the night. ‘Odysseus, Pallas Athene’s favourite, that brave spirit whom no adventure ever finds unready. Together he and I would go through fire and still return. He has the quickest mind of any man I know.’ Off they go ‘picking their way amongst the corpses and the blood-stained weapons.’ And again, when he returns home at last to Ithaca, the suitors are slaughtered in the hall, and then the women-servants are made to wash the place clean, before they are strung up ‘like doves or long-winged thrushes caught in a net’ using a hawser from one of the ships. So Homer’s poem-novel ends in savagery.
Odysseus is unforgiving in an age before mercy. And Raleigh? In Ireland in 1580, fighting in the campaigns of Lord Grey, he took the surrender of Fort Smerwick and then ‘entered into the castle and made a great slaughter’. Five hundred or so men and some pregnant women died according to the Spanish, and there were seventeen hangings. In 1595 he put the garrison of Port of Spain to the sword in order to protect his back as he went on to Guiana. It was an age of butchery and counter-butchery.
In contrast he seems to have dealt fairly with the natives of Guiana, and honourably in battle, by the military standards of the day. He was a tough combatant, and did what was expedient. Like Odysseus he was left with blood on his hands. No wonder the libations and sacrifices to Athene were so necessary. The hero gave thanks, but he also prayed for protection and for the impiety of the slaughter to be forgiven. So pre-historic hunters carried out rituals over the places where animals were killed, to celebrate their fortune, to hallow the victims and ensure good luck in the future, to ward off revenge for their actions, to propitiate the animal masters, and the spirits of those they had destroyed.
Odysseus is Athene’s favourite. Mistress of acute vision, dexterity of mind, wiliness and cunning, experience served by intelligence. She appears as a sacred bird, a swallow; an owl; a heron. ‘The Olympians have ways of their own’ but Odysseus is capable of ‘recognising the voice of the goddess’. With Athene reason rules. The mind separates itself from the passions and appetites. There is detachment, cool appraisal, quickness of perception, adroitness of argument, creative stratagem.
Athene is the inner voice and the secret presence, the halo of light around the hero’s intelligence, the inspirer of eloquence in those who give her place, and have the courage to use what she gives. Athene is the eye of heaven. Once a Sumerian Goddess, adopted by the Phoenicians, brought to Greece from Libya where she was that Neith of Lake Tritonis, Athene is the strange, cold, alien voice among the Olympians, jealous of her favourites. She comes disguised, an optical illusion. She looks out from the icy pupils of her eyes into a world of forces, patterns, where survival is at risk. She is vision itself, virgin and rational. Raleigh, in the Tower, translates Ovid on Apollo. ‘The world discerns itself while I the world behold. By me the longest years and other times are told. I the world’s eye.’
Athene is the self, the individual mind, in a world which summons forth all our wit and skill to deal with it. She is the spirit that surmounts adversity, that calls to activity, to brave attempts, to the instinct of curiosity, and adventure, and to the investigative faculties. Odysseus is used to dealing with women. He gives them respect, the spinners of webs and fates. His own Penelope threads and unthreads her tapestry to delay the suitors. He is almost a victim of the Sirens’ attempt to seduce him. Circe and Calypso succeed. And the sea, subject to the moon, is the element that drives him out of his course. He is a man threatened with webs, and with nets, saved by the magic entwining veil, and the covering of leaves, by Athene’s opposing nets and webs of transforming light.
Raleigh navigates among women, between his two Elizabeth’s, between Cynthia and Selene, the Queen and the Bride, the moon of power and the moon of intimacy. There is a feminine, poetic depth to his silvery imagination, which gleams like those pearls with which he adorns his clothes and his person. The Moon is his king, her court is among the heavens, and his Queen is the king on earth. Her light makes him and unmakes him. She is the key to order, the being to whom he gives total obedience, as Odysseus gives obedience to Athene. ‘She gave, she took, she wounded, she appeased’ wrote Raleigh in his Booke of the Ocean to Scynthia. ‘No other power effecting woe or bliss’. And it was her ‘small drops of joys, sweetened great worlds of woes.’
To Ulysses, in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare gives the great speech on ‘degree, priority, and place’. Ulysses is cautious, as Shakespeare himself was, of power which turns to will, will to appetite, until ‘appetite, an universal wolf ... must make perforce an universal prey’. Raleigh as Ulysses who has, earlier in the play, warned of Achilles-Essex sulking in his tent, now warns of what may happen when degree is taken away. It threatens ‘primogenity, and due of birth, prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels’. The Tudors, in some minds, had questionable right to the crown. Raleigh was one of those who protected the dynasty. Though he fell from favour once under Elizabeth, he was never accused by her of disloyalty. It was his marriage like Donne’s that was his misfortune in her reign. It waited for James to accuse Raleigh of a crime of which he was incapable, that of deliberately undermining the monarchy.
Raleigh, like Odysseus is a man of fate, but he is cautious about the influence of the stars. Astrology was not essentially serious to the Renaissance in the way it may have been in earlier periods. It was, as has been said, theatre, part of the glittering game. In Raleigh’s History of the World the stars are God’s handiwork, and express God’s will only. He says that it is wrong to hold, with the Chaldeans and the Stoics, that the stars bind men with the chains of necessity. Equally they are not mere ornament. If God bound men through the stars without their having free will then evil actions could be excused. That would be error. Weakness falls prey to the influence of the heavens but ‘Fate will be overcome, if thou resist it; if thou neglect, it conquereth.’
Nature does not always influence inferior bodies, he says. Education mitigates nature. Personality is a blend of nature and nurture. Nothing should be bound to the strict letter of the law, but everything requires judgement to be exercised. ‘These laws do not deprive kings of....compassion, or bind them ... that there should be nothing left of liberty to judgment, power or conscience; the law in his own nature being nothing but a deaf tyrant.’ Raleigh was to see the deaf tyrant in action in Essex’s trial and in his own.
Nevertheless the stars have a God-given influence. ‘Why should we rob the beautiful stars of their working powers?.... we may not think... there can be wanting, even for every star a peculiar virtue and operation; as every herb plant fruit and flower.. hath the like.’
In Raleigh’s birth chart Neptune is prominent, in Taurus. It is square to Pluto, the planet of fate, which is in Aquarius. One remembers him being despoiled of his possessions in 1618 as he returns for the last time to the Tower, losing ‘ a diamond ring which he wore on his finger given him by the late Queen’ and ‘a jacinth seal, set in gold, with Neptune engraved on it.’ Neptune in Taurus was his fate, his bull from the sea. Neptune the planet of the deep oceans, of poetry, of prisons and of cures. Neptune is the planet of idealism, creativity, spirituality, and of his poetic imagination. His wealth also comes from Neptune in Taurus, from mines, wines, fruits of the earth, and from the sea. And Neptune in the fixed sign of Taurus, in tension with Scorpio rising at his death, stands for loyalty in creativity and in ideals.
Pluto in turn is subconscious attraction, the planet of beginnings and endings, of wealth and of the analytical mind. Pluto in Aquarius square Scorpio, and trine Uranus is progressive, original, reforming, intellectual, idealistic and steadfast. An original man, an original mind. Uranus in Libra gave him flair and originality in the arts. It also gave him a deep spirit of friendship, so much so that the man could never tell who his true friends were. Cecil was a friend until he betrayed that friendship at his trial. But those who were his true friends, like Hariot, stayed with him to the end, loving the man.
And his melancholy? That feeling of elegiac loneliness, of transience and impermanence, that strikes a new note in English poetry; that introspective thoughtfulness; the personal and passionate quality of his verse? The poems are full of sincerity, sadness, and poignancy, all in contrast to the vigorous soldier and adventurer. There is Saturn in Pisces. Empathetic, flexible, self-sacrificing, making a man his own worst enemy, tending towards lack of hope, hypersensitivity, moodiness. Raleigh is capable of bemoaning fate, of regretting the vanishing of the past, of being saddened by injustice and the disappearance of the moon from the sky. His reply to Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’ is a poem of cool realism, ‘the flowers do fade’ and the world and love are no longer young, and truth is not in every tongue. In his ‘Farewell to the Court’ his joys are expired like truthless dreams, and his dandled days past return, and his love misled, ‘of all which past the sorrow only stays.’ His battles were fought in the sun, but his imagination had a moonlit cast. What is displayed within his poetry is his relationship with Woman, with the Goddess in her many manifestations, and with her incarnation in the Queen.
The Goddess is the Natural World. She is also therefore the soul of man. The matrix of generation and repetition, with its implicit ritual of renewal, ripening and decay, was once embodied in the worship of the mythological female. The elemental story is the re-creation of the life of the earth by the Goddess and her male consort. The elemental tragedy is the death of that consort; the entry of death into life, wearing its many masks; his ritual sacrificial execution; her mourning for him; and his resurrection in the new life. This is the ritual of Attis and Cybele, of Ishtar and Tammuz, of Venus and Adonis, of the Goddess of the East and her Lord. It is behind the myths of Actaeon, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Pentheus, Phaethon. In the Catholic Church it is the cult of the Virgin Mary, present in triad as the three Mary’s; her conception of the divine Lord; his life and sacrifice; her mourning for him at the foot of the world-tree; his resurrection and the meeting in the garden; and the promise of his second coming. Out of this ritual comes the underpinning for Church and Monarchy, the eternally founded, constantly repeated, ordered cycle. ‘Le Roi est mort, Vive Le Roi.’
The Elizabethan age, the dangerous 1590’s which are its zenith, is the time in England when the ancient mythological structure of inherited kingship and popular worship of the Goddess meets the new age which the Renaissance conceived, through rediscovering the Classical achievement. That new age radically challenged the pre-existing order.
Greek civilisation had transformed it once before. The ancient Goddess in her triple aspect had fragmented into her attributes. Her fecundity and her eroticism became trivialised in the masks of Hera, Aphrodite, Hecate. Her representation of the natural world was given a chilly reality in the form of Artemis. Her powers were usurped by the gods, by Zeus and Poseidon, by Hades and Apollo, by Dionysus and Hermes. The male consort was fragmenting before consolidating again to become Eternal Jehovah; the one God of Judaism, and of Puritan Christianity, beside whom there would be no other.
The most potent of all the Greek creations is Athene, that strange sexless spirit, that Ariel who comes in many disguises and speaks to men most intimately, that fleshless incarnation of Mind itself in all its devious movements. She casts the glow of poetry over her favourites. She protects with cunning, guides through astuteness, sharpens the sight, gives dexterity to the hand, pleads eloquently with the Gods, with Fate, fills the world with intellect.
In Athene the Goddess is already fading, and Odysseus is the last hero, the end of an age, the beginning of a new age. Odysseus, her representative among mankind, is the archetype of the independent man, the individual, whose gifts are his abilities, whose achievement is to survive. He is the ancient trickster, and the modern mind. He is the freelance warrior and the traveller, the wanderer who will cross cultures and oceans, solve problems, invent stratagems, manipulate words. With Odysseus the age of ritual becomes the age of opportunism. As Ulysses he carries the sacred wound of the boar, but survives, avoids the ritual death of the king. ‘As for your own end, Death will come to you in its gentlest guise, out of the sea.’ prophesies Teiresias in the Odyssey.
In Athene the Goddess of nature, generation and ritual kingship is absent. Athene represents the power of Reason. The new world will fall to new men. With technology, commerce and the secular state, men will establish a culture based on knowledge, on law, creating its own traditions through convention and agreement, through the word. The questioning, challenging and exploratory spirit of Marlowe, Raleigh and Hariot is an echo of Machiavel and Copernicus, and a precursor of Cromwell, Newton, and Cooke. Experience and knowledge will become more critical than inherited position, wealth and ability than primogeniture. The keynote is the emergence of the free individual, in freedom from history, in freedom of thought and religion. It is the radical call of the English, French, and American Revolutions. When the radical energy has died away what remains is Odysseus, the modern human being. But the Goddess, in some sense, also remains.
The Goddess remains as Nature damaged by humanity; as female generation transformable by genetics; as passion alive against reason; as appetite against the impersonal will, as the single one against the stifling oppression of the mass, as love against sterility. She is the sacred marriage of individual hearts and minds as the sanctuary within which humanity, compassion, the arts and all living beauty can survive. We are an age of survivors and of what remains. For the Elizabethans the old order was not yet gone, the new order was not yet arrived. Reason was still establishing itself in rule over Passion, law over appetite. ‘Every human proposition’ said Raleigh, quoting Charron, ‘hath equal authority, if reason make not the difference.’
Shakespeare in his plays betrays both desire that Reason should prevail, and anxiety lest the Sacrament should be lost. His protagonists are punished for falling victim to unreason, to their passions and their obsessions. Equally they are punished for the misuse of reason and of strict logic, for mislaying and denying their souls, for their transgression against the natural law, and the Goddess of the sacred marriage. That marriage is at risk throughout the major tragedies, and is rescued in The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, by sleight of hand, by protecting magic and by magical resurrection.
One concludes that Shakespeare saw clearly the need for reason but also the potential assault of a loveless rationality on the mythological past, and thereby on ritual, nature, the female, the sacred. His instincts are for order and reason, but they are also for love. Therefore love must infuse reason, but irrational sexuality must be removed from love and love must become an expression of chaste affections. In that sense he is a prophet of Puritanism and of the Victorian dual view of Woman and a Cassandra who prophesies the rational unreason of the Civil War. His apolitical solution for the individual attempts a reconciliation of forces from within. On the other hand his order is the old order. His religion is a modification of the old religion. His society is sacred kingship. It is on their behalf that Shakespeare’s appeals to reason are made. His political message is therefore conformist and inconsistent with the inconsistency of his moment in time. Reason and the new must triumph without losing the ancient and the sacred. Existing order must triumph without opposing the forces of reason. The former will happen. Marlowe, Essex, Raleigh, Donne will be precursors, without necessarily being conscious of their role in the drama. Cassandra will speak in tongues, Agamemnon the sacred king will die, and Odysseus the rational man will come alive out of the wreckage to sail the seas.
Raleigh celebrates the Goddess. The title of his poem Walsinghame for instance is the name of an ancient English shrine to the Virgin, and its content a hymn to the power of the Goddess sung by her faithful but forgotten lover. What are the tributes to Scinthia and Diana, to Selene and Belphebe, if they are not a worship of the Goddess? ‘As you came from the holy land of Walsinghame’; ‘In heaven Queene she is among the spheares’; ‘All suddenly I saw the Faery Queen: at whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept’; ‘Such force her angellike appearance had, to master distance, time or cruelty’. The Goddess is ever present in his poetry.
On the surface he pays almost religious tribute. He draws on the ageless imagery of the Goddess. He makes a conceit of love and the Virgin Queen. He may certainly have believed in his own love and devotion. There is no suggestion of insincerity in Raleigh. The man is passionate but controlled. He is Athene’s man, not an Endymion who falls helplessly for the Moon Goddess, but his character is still one of loyalty to the old order, devotion to the monarchy, a service of all his talents. He fulfils the role of Shakespeare’s Ulysses, employing reason on behalf of existing order. Part of that service ironically is suppression of Catholicism, in which the Goddess as the Virgin is enshrined. It is the same service Essex was about and that he went to his death asserting. It is the same secret service that Marlowe was engaged in, and that Donne’s religious efforts uphold. And one means to that end was the transfer to Elizabeth, the head of a Protestant Church severed from Rome, of the worship and cult of the Virgin Mary the remaining icon of the ancient Goddess. Elizabeth adopted her symbols, the ermine, the rose, the phoenix, and the pearl symbolic of virginity. She was the remote Moon, beautiful but chaste, enticing but pure, powerful but virtuous.
The Protestant myth is the Fall of Man, the intervention of Christ in the world, and the promise of Redemption. In that myth, as Donne would spell out in his later religious phase (retreating from his expression of the equality of the sexes in all their humanity which illuminated the Songs and Sonnets) Woman is the frail vessel, the cause of Original Sin, the lesser partner. For the Protestant ethic, as we know to our cost, Nature is merely a resource to be exploited. The rule of the Goddess is, in some respects rightly, condemned as the rule of unreason, of lawlessness, of the raw and the uncooked, of the wild.
Elizabeth took on herself the role of the sacred Virgin, the role of the Goddess, but sexlessly, as Athene, as Artemis, as Reason and Law. And Raleigh is her poet as fundamentally so is Shakespeare. Raleigh and Essex are among those who defuse the ancient ritual. And thereby, and this is the ‘tragic’ irony of Elizabethan England, she and they undermine the myth of sacred kingship. If order is to prevail, then might can be right, and the history of the Tudor dynasty supports that view. It only waits however for a superior might to topple it from power.
If Reason is to prevail, the ironic message states, then ability not inheritance is the formula for achievement and success in the Protestant future. If Reason is to prevail then the talents of the people and the rights of the people need expression through elected government not through monarchy. If Reason is to prevail then science and knowledge will lead, technology will effect, and commerce will re-order. If Reason is to prevail then the sacred marriage, nature, and passion, even love itself must retreat into the personal and individual world.
For our age there is the challenge of resurrecting the sacred marriage, of harmonising the Goddess and Modernity. For the Protestant Ethic there was no such challenge. The Goddess and all her works were to be suppressed, and with them ultimately all extreme actions and thoughts, the lawlessness of the Maenads, of the Bacchantes. Witness the destruction of radical challenge after the Civil War. Dissent was too dangerous. But before that came Revolution. Raleigh is an agent of the New World, but he can appear as a figure in the Old also, casting a wistful glance backward in time. He is caught in both Worlds, in the turmoil of change.
In the Elizabethans we see the old ways coexisting with the new, the new emerging from the old. Piracy and opportunism sit alongside reason and law, Albion coexists with discovery and empire, Ptolemy is still there alongside Copernicus and Galileo, space and time expand through a grasp of geography and history, while savage executions buttress a police state.
And the new destabilises the old. The old clings to ritual order and degree. Ulysses is the spokesman for that order in Troilus and Cressida as Raleigh is in his History of the World. The reality however of the symbol, is an ageing, barren woman capable neither of sustaining the direct line of monarchy, nor of holding back the changes her reign had fostered. A waning moon sets over a stormy ocean. The Goddess is dying, killed by the Goddess’s incarnation. All the glitter and glory ends as Raleigh said in this ‘lady whom time hath forgot’.
Raleigh storms an old, false heaven in his poetry, a true one in his life. The true future was in the empty skies and new found lands of the voyages, military power on land and naval power on the seas, the discovery and use of new plants and drugs, colonial wealth. The future was in the speeches in parliament, the individual life, the mind with its wide interests, eloquence and rationality. He already saw the Imperialist future, tied irresistibly to commerce. ‘It is likely, by God’s blessing, that a land shall flourish with increase of trade in countries before unknown; that civility and religion shall be propagated into barbarous and heathen countries’. ‘Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.’ This is the same thinking that Livingstone in the Victorian period will carry into darkest Africa. Science and sea power, commerce and empire, under God’s Providence, was to be the English destiny, and Raleigh articulated it and embodied it, in a way that his countrymen and succeeding generations could easily understand. The false heavens of Ptolemy, of astrology, of religion, of curtailed time and space, would be transformed to the true heaven of knowledge, astronomy, physics, the chemical composition of the stars, the microcosmic scale of life, the cool rational vistas of the universe.
Among Raleigh’s possessions when he entered the Tower, for the last time, after the failed second Guiana voyage, were maps. He had with him charts of Panama and the Orinoco, of Guiana and Nova Regnia. One is reminded of one of his own exquisite hand drawn maps, of the mouths of the Nile, on a page of his notebook material for The History of the World. Raleigh’s mind was a map, as Odysseus’s was. Perhaps he enjoyed voyaging in his thoughts through the long years of imprisonment, as Odysseus did through his days confined with Calypso and Circe.
The parallels are there. In the story of Ulysses is Ogygia which is Malta; Phaeacia which is Corfu; Djerba where the Lotus-eaters lived; Sicily land of Cyclops; Stromboli and Mount Circonis, Capri of the Sirens; The Straits of Messina between Scylla and Charybdis; the Plains of Troy; and Ithaca the little island which was home.
So Raleigh, with England for Ithaca; the Atlantic for the Mediterranean; the Azores and the Caribbean Islands for Malta, Corfu, Capri, Sicily and Cyprus; Guiana for North Africa. Raleigh goes east to fight as Odysseus did, and voyages west and south along the paths of the sun. Odysseus, journeying to the Underworld, grasps the strange plant that Hermes puts into his hand. ‘It had a blackish root, and milk-white flower. The gods call it Moly, and it is an awkward plant to dig up, at any rate for a mere man.’ Raleigh’s sponsored expeditions bring back new plants also, tobacco and potatoes, as they appear in Gerard’s Herbal. He had potatoes set in his gardens at Youghal in Ireland, along with yellow wallflowers from the Azores, and the ‘Affane cherry’ from the Canary Islands.
He sponsored voyages to the Virginian coast, fought in Ireland, France, and Spain, sailed to the Azores with Essex on the Islands Voyage, sailed twice to Guiana. He was part of that process whereby the world grew larger, and at the same time smaller. The new worlds were mapped, became accessible. More space came with less mystery, more science, more technology. Raleigh sponsored Hariot who was a trusted member of his household, and a close friend. Hariot was mathematician and scientist, producing navigational tables and manual for the Americas expedition, delving into optics, mechanics, meteorology, and astronomy. He was one of a circle of contacts mathematicians, historians, and antiquaries, men who provided material for Raleigh’s History of the World, which was an immense undertaking of scholarship.
Geography and History opened up minds. It is not far from practise to theory; from observation and experience, to experiment and understanding; from the discovery of new worlds to their structure; from mechanics, astronomy and optics to physics; from botany to biology; from history to government and rights. Raleigh’s History of the World is in one sense an immense anachronism, a great defence of the Providential working of the universe as dispensed from the right hand of God. But the opening up of horizons that his life represented inspired generations of men to interpret History and Providence in another manner, to question monarchy fundamentally, to consolidate the world of trade and exploration, to achieve dominance of the seas, and military effectiveness, to provide a foundation for the advancement of science. James thought that Raleigh had been too critical of kings in his History.
Raleigh has a role in both worlds. An exemplar of the old England of achievement, glory, excitement, and aristocratic freedom. A precursor of the new, more bitter, world of liberty, democracy, and the Protestant ethic. The Civil War failed to create the parliament of the people (‘Is not all the controversy, whose slaves the poor shall be?’ asked a Leveller pamphlet) but it set the stage. The radical agenda was freedom – freedom from hell and from priests, from blind nature, from magic, from arbitrary authority – freedom from the Goddess in her modes of natural humankind, ignorance, superstition and dread.
In his voyages Odysseus escapes from the witches, from Circe, Calypso, and the Sirens, enters the world of the dead, and returns. Raleigh also escapes; partly through his powerful mind, that ‘sharpness of wit’; partly through his multifarious activities, always full of knowledge, interest, intellect; ultimately through his death. Pym stood in the crowd at his execution. Eliot and Hampden read his works. Cromwell recommended the History of the World to his son, a book where could be seen ‘those strange windings and turnings of Providence.’
Raleigh is the representative Elizabethan in action, achieving by survival and endurance, by resilience and repetition, symbolic depth and breadth. It took his death to make him loved. He did indeed ‘Do then by dying, what life cannot do....’ as his Book of the Ocean suggested. He had known through experience, what he anticipated in one of his early poems printed in Gascoigne’s The Steel Glas in 1576, that ‘whoso reaps renown above the rest, with heaps of hate shall surely be oprest.’ But he lived beyond it to a deeper popular appreciation.
Raleigh in the Tower is a Leonardo figure, the Leonardo of the Turin self-portrait, the aged magi, the old wizard, the fox knowing many things. He is an imprisoned necromancer, like Merlin. (Prisons are an emblem of the age. Essex under house-arrest in York House, Donne in The Fleet, Marlowe in Newgate.) He is Merlin who, like Ulysses, is imprisoned by magic. Merlin’s Circe is Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, who, learning his secrets, turns his own spells against him. She captures him in a tower of air, or, in other variants of the legend, in a tower of glass, under a stone in a deep cave in the rock, in a hawthorn tree, the white may tree sacred to the goddess, as Burnes-Jones painting shows him. Raleigh’s Circe is first Elizabeth, jealous of his marriage, his return to the true goddess. Then the warlock James, whom that strange but compelling play Macbeth was written to please, with its witches and darkness, its triple Hecate and its ghostly Banquo, James’s claimed ancestor.
Raleigh imprisoned is Shelley’s Prince Athanase. ‘His soul had wedded Wisdom, and her dower is love and justice, clothed in which he sate, apart from men, as in a lonely tower, pitying the tumult of their dark estate.’ He escapes, as Odysseus escapes, twice, to return to and to leave his faithful Penelope. ‘I know’ says Odysseus to Calypso ‘that my Penelope’s looks and form are insignificant compared with yours.. nevertheless I long for the happy day of my return home... and if the powers above wreck me out on the wine-dark waters I have a heart inured to suffering since I have had much bitter experience in war and on the stormy seas.’ Athene, darkly, ‘wished the anguish to eat deeper yet into Odysseus’s heart’ says Homer. From Circe, Odysseus travelled to Hades to summon the dead, and there is a strange echo of that in the words of Raleigh’s gaoler when Raleigh was imprisoned for a time, in 1618, in the Brick Tower, in a tiny cell. He said ‘though it seemeth nearer heaven, yet there is no means to escape but into hell’.
Raleigh travels via execution to a reputation beyond the grave. To his Penelope, Elizabeth Throckmorton, in 1603, believing that his execution was set for the following day, he writes a moving letter, in words that the practical and long-suffering Odysseus might have used. ‘If you can live free from want, care for no more, for the rest is but vanity’ and ‘When you have travelled, and wearied your thoughts in all sorts of worldly cogitations you shall sit down by sorrowe in the end.’ Less lucky than Odysseus in his ending, he was lucky in his affections. And the same courage and endurance Odysseus showed enabled him to act out the advice which was offered to him, in an anonymous, hostile, answer to his poem The Lie, ‘I pray you tell them how to live, and teach them how to die.’
If not a true scientist, nor a great philosopher, nor even the wizard men imagined, Raleigh was still, in his originality and wide-ranging thought, a modern. His misfortune was to be the living emblem of the old world also. In an age of the Goddess denied, as one of those who assisted in that denial, he was also a symbol of Elizabethan England, its pressurised achievements, its glory, and its deification of Gloriana, Virginia, Belphebe, Synthia, the Virgin Queen. For that he paid the price. He was betrayed to execution by the Spanish faction, sacrificed to advance the matrimonial treaty with Spain, or merely removed as an embarrassment to James, made an example of, in that ritual tidying that English monarchs seemed to practise. Nevertheless it was said quite rightly that his ‘death will do more harm to the faction that procured it than ever he did in his life.’ He became a symbol of enlightened Englishness, of free-thinking rationalism, of courageous individualism, of free trade despite his holding of monopolies, of Parliament despite having been a great Courtier, of the Common Law despite having been a Royal favourite. He gained the lasting respect of Bacon and Coke, who prosecuted him, and was a truer man than either.
In the early hours of the morning of Sunday the eighth of February 1600, Raleigh rowed himself out into the Thames. In a Dickensian river meeting, amongst congealing mists and dark water, he lined up his small boat alongside that of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the Governor of Plymouth Fort, kinsman of Raleigh, and a follower of Essex. Essex had approved the meeting if it were held mid-river with two witnesses present. Though perhaps suspicious of Gorges, Essex could hardly deny him the contact. Raleigh advised Gorges to disassociate himself from Essex and return to Plymouth. Gorges, privy to Essex’s plans for insurrection, advised Raleigh to go back to Court as he was ‘like to have a bloody day of it’. Four shots were then fired towards Raleigh from the shore, possibly at Sir Christopher Blount’s instigation, and armed men appeared on Essex steps. Raleigh returned, and hurried to Court to issue a warning. By the evening Essex’s abortive rebellion was over and Essex a prisoner. On Ash Wednesday Essex went to the block.
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest’ wrote Raleigh in the poem that compares life to a play, a theatre. The Queen was then sixty-seven years old, the favourites and rivals, Essex and Raleigh thirty-three years and forty-seven years respectively. Raleigh was required to attend Essex’s execution as Captain of the Guard. He would have seen in Essex his own reflection. When the sacred king is killed, the new king sees his own ritual fate enacted. At Essex’s trial Raleigh testified against him, part of a process that was a travesty of justice. He saw the great Coke, later a champion of freedom and the Common Law, twist the law to his purpose. He saw Francis Bacon distance himself from his old benefactor, and turn on him like one of Actaeon’s hounds under Diana’s command. He saw Cecil and the coming men, the administrators and desk-officers, lifted up by Fortune’s wheel.
At Raleigh’s own execution eighteen years later at the age of sixty-four, crowning sacrificially his own life, Raleigh took a few last moments to talk about Essex. ‘It is said that I was persecutor of my Lord of Essex.... I confess I was of a contrary faction, but I knew my Lord of Essex was a noble gentleman, and that it would be worse with me when he was gone; for those that set me against him, afterwards set themselves against me...I understood that he asked for me at his death, to be reconciled.’
There is the ancient story. It is the tale of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Solar Year. It concerns at its heart, the God’s struggle with the doomed God of the Dying Year, his fateful elder brother, whose place he comes to usurp, whose marriage with the supreme Triple Goddess he will in turn celebrate, and whose death he will have to die. He is his brother’s doppel-gänger, his mirror self, his shadow, his alter ego. He is the God’s murderous rival, who is driven on, at the instigation of the Goddess, to destroy her old lover, the reigning consort, and become her lover in his stead. This is the story contained within the myth of Osiris, and his brother Set. It is the story of Atreus and Thyestes, of Aegisthus and Orestes. The God, a God of the Waxing Year, can only ever be a temporary consort of the Goddess. She is Nature and remains. He is the annual inseminating power, male and temporary, destined to be crucified, beheaded, burnt, put to death in a thousand ways, so as to be resurrected in his own mirrored reflection, as his eternal rival, his immortal Self.
Raleigh and Essex, Odysseus and Achilles, live these stories which are wound together. Raleigh’s is the first cycle. Adopted as the Queen’ favourite around 1582, he a twenty-eight year old, she twenty years older, in her prime. By 1583 he was a rich man, granted the ‘Farm of Wines’ which was a monopoly unpopular with tradesmen, an annual retail licence charge on the vintners. In 1584 he held Durham House, one of that line of great Houses along the river by Whitehall. York House was next door. The old Savoy, Somerset Palace, and Essex House further down. In Durham House Raleigh had ‘a little turret that looked into and over the Thames, and had the prospect which is pleasant perhaps as any in the world’. There if he wished he could learn to be a dreamer in a lonely tower.
His income was frequently increased, many times over. He played the great game of courting the Queen. He was as Spenser said ‘the sommers Nightingale, thy soveraine Goddess’s most deare delight’. ‘In heaven Queene she is...’ wrote Raleigh ‘She beautie is, by her the fair endure’. Puttenham described the tall elegant courtier, as man and poet, as ‘ most loftie, insolent, and passionate.’
He sponsored the Virginia Voyages to the New World, entered Parliament, was Lord Warden of the Stannaries controlling the production of the Cornish tin-mines, sent his ships privateering off the Azores, and in 1587 succeeded Sir Christopher Hatton as Captain of the Queen’s guard. He rode with her, laughed with her, wrote poetry. He was at the midpoint of his life, the zenith of his Court career. Then Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, twenty years old, thirteen years younger than Raleigh, arrived. Raleigh was ‘damnable proud’. Essex ‘a great resenter’. The Rivals began to skirmish.
Essex, the nobleman, was prepared to argue with Elizabeth over precedence. In a quarrel over the treatment of his sister Dorothy banished from Court for marrying secretly, the young Phaethon reproached Elizabeth, asked ‘why she would offer this disgrace both to me and to my sister, which was only to please that knave Raleigh... For myself I told her I had no job to be in any place, but was loth to be near about her, when I knew my affection so much thrown down, and such a wretch as Raleigh highly esteemed of her. To this she made no answer, but turned away....’
Through the Armada period Essex and Raleigh jockeyed for position, Raleigh equipping ships to harass the Spanish, contending with Essex over the appointment of protégés to lucrative posts. He contributed to the actions at Corunna, Lisbon and on the Tagus, where Essex deserting his position of Master of the Queen’s Horse at Court without permission chose to run the gauntlet of the Queen’s disfavour. Raleigh took possession of land and houses in Ireland, at Lismore and Youghal, and sponsored Edmund Spenser’s publication of his Faerie Queen.
In 1590 Essex was disgraced by his secret marriage to Frances Walsingham. Raleigh might then have foreseen his own destiny reflected in that of Essex. His rival, his alter ego, his other Self, shown clearly in the mirror, in that cold Tudor glass.
By early 1592 Raleigh had in turn found and married his Serena, his Penelope, Elizabeth Throckmorton, then a twenty-seven year old lady of the Privy Chamber. She was related to the risk-taking Throckmorton family, one branch of which owned Coughton Court in Warwickshire, its members involved in Wyatt’s Rebellion, and the Gunpowder Plot. She gave birth to a son Damerei in the March of that year. Disaster followed. Raleigh was recalled from the Panama expedition, financed to attack the Spanish treasure fleet, on which he had set out as commander. Though he denied the marriage at first to Cecil, there clearly had been one, and he went with his wife to the Tower, ‘for defiling the honour of a lady of the Queen’. Camden says the marriage was forced on him by the Queen for wronging her lady, and the child Damerei may therefore have been conceived out of wedlock.
By September he was released to hurry to Dartmouth, to prevent the plunder, by all and sundry, of treasure from the Madre de Dios, captured by his ships of the Panama expedition, a leviathan of 1600 tons, the single richest prize ever brought to an English port. The Crown wanted its share of the prize, and that effectively bought him his freedom. He was at liberty again after a first taste of the Tower he was to get to know so well, but still out of favour. ‘No: I am still the Queen of England’s poor captive’ he told Cecil, who noted ‘his heart is broken; for he is very extreme pensive’. ‘Like truthless dreames, so are my joys expired’ he wrote in his poem Farewell to the Court, ‘My minde to woe, my life in fortunes hand, of all which past, the sorrow onely stays.’ And in the poem to Synthia ‘but I must be the example in loves story’. He retreated to his ‘fortune’s fold’, Sherborne Castle in Dorset. He was not to be received at Court again for five years.
In 1595 he set sail for Guiana, to find riches, and restore his position with the Queen. The Essex faction waited. Guiana was a new and intriguing land, richly wooded, with a gentle people. It gave rise to comparisons with life in the Golden Age. Though he brought back mineral ores, there was no immediate evidence of the rich mines of precious metals that Raleigh believed existed. To Elizabeth his voyage was a failure since it failed to make her wealthier. Essex the rival was once more in favour. When Howard, Essex and Vere led the 1596 expedition against Cadiz, Raleigh was also there. Essex was temporarily reconciled to him. ‘For this is the action and the time in which you and I shall be taught to know and love one another’. Raleigh covered himself in glory, but the treasure ships were missed, the merchantmen were lost to fire, and in attacking Cadiz directly the Queen’s order had been disobeyed. Raleigh praised Essex. Others praised Raleigh. Neither gained ground with Elizabeth.
Observing his rival in 1597, Raleigh saw how Essex was kept close to the Queen, but denied greater power, his petitions and nominations ignored. Essex saw that he might be able to use Raleigh’s military experience to bolster his own position, and Raleigh saw how he might be able to use Essex to return to favour. Raleigh, Essex and Cecil grew closer. In June Raleigh was re-established as Captain of the Guard after five years. He joined Essex in the Islands Voyage to the Azores in July. Battered by a great storm, many of the ships returned to port.
Essex was a guest on Raleigh’s flagship Warspite for a time, though he had doubts and jealousies ‘buzzed into his ears’ concerning Raleigh. They sailed for Lisbon and then the Azores in hopes of catching the Spanish treasure fleet. Separated from each other, Raleigh attacked one of the islands Fayal without Essex in a partially successful raid on the fort at Horta. Essex’s party accused Raleigh of disobeying orders, and Raleigh had to defend himself with Essex. There was considerable friction. A touchy Raleigh was reprimanded, and apologised though convinced he was in the right. The rest of the Voyage was a failure, missing the treasure fleet by a few miles and hours. They were blown back home in a series of storms. Raleigh had the success at Fayal, and a Brazil prize vessel. Essex had nothing but the Queen’s displeasure.
Raleigh as Captain of the Guard must have witnessed the extraordinary scene between Essex and Elizabeth in July of 1598 when Essex quarrelled with the Queen over the appointment of a new Lord Deputy for Ireland. Essex lost his temper and turned his back on her. Angered and offended she boxed his ears. Insulted, Essex stormed out, went off to brood like Achilles in his tent over perceived wrongs.
Essex was then foolish enough to bid for and be given the Deputyship himself. Writing from Ireland in June of 1599, distant from the court, nervous and exposed, he slandered Raleigh. Essex mishandled the Irish situation, made his mad ride to Nonesuch, and was imprisoned for disobedience in York House. Raleigh would have looked down perhaps on his old rival walking in the gardens from Durham House next door. John Donne, secretary to Egerton, the Lord Keeper, was resident there, between the two forces so to speak. Raleigh wrote to Cecil maliciously ‘if her Majesties favor fail him, he will again decline to a common person.’ Essex was released to his own Essex House a little downriver. Raleigh was soon to row out, on that cold February Sunday, to meet Gorges midstream. Essex became a sacrifice to Artemis, like that King of the Wood by Lake Nemi in Italy who lived until deposed by his successor. The favourite, the mortal prince, was killed as offering to the immortal Goddess, a personification of the multitudinous life of nature, both animal and vegetable. Diana, the goddess of the wild, was also a moon-goddess, a Synthia, ‘a princes and supreame’.
At Court, Essex and Raleigh had followed each other in and out of favour in the minor cycles of her lunar year, and in the end it was Odysseus the survivor who remained. Odysseus who escaped from Circe the witch of the moon, from Calypso’s cave which was ‘sheltered by a green thicket of alder, aspen and sweet-smelling cypress’. Odysseus wounded but not slain by the boar. Odysseus who pays court to the Moon Goddess, but whose inner allegiance is to grey-eyed Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom. Odysseus who voyaged in the Moon’s element, over storm-driven seas, and returned despite all dangers. Odysseus who says of himself in Homer ‘For I have been through many bitter experiences.’ Odysseus, son of Laertes, or maybe Sisyphus, who was warned by the oracle ‘If you go to Troy, you will not return until the twentieth year, and then alone and destitute.’ Odysseus who could hope for revenge on his enemies, but must always ‘expect great trouble’, whose ‘travels would not yet be finished’, whose ‘death would come to him from the sea’.
In the last years of Elizabeth’s reign Raleigh was again in favour. She was in her late sixties, he a vigorous man still, not yet fifty. Essex ‘Sweet England’s pride’ was gone. Raleigh from Durham House and Sherborne, issued out to attend Parliament, act as Governor of Jersey, run the West Country, supervise the Channel Coast Fleet, Progress with the Court, take the waters at Bath. His parliamentary speeches included thoughts on free trade, on the abuse of monopolies even though he was a beneficiary, and on religious toleration.
All this ended with James’s accession. To many in England, following his rivalry with Essex, and Essex’s downfall, Raleigh was a ‘damnable fiend of hell, mischievous Machiavel’. The popular ballad claimed that ‘Essex for vengeance cries, his blood upon thee lies’. He was to redeem that view by his own death.
The Goddess, Elizabeth, dying, would take the true power of the crown with her. The process which Raleigh had unwittingly furthered, by his sponsorship of exploration and of Hariot and his circle, by parliamentary debate, free-ranging thought, by his support of free speech, and freedom of every man within the law, would put paid to the old order. In 1603 Elizabeth died. The man who said in Parliament ‘I think the best course is to set at liberty, and leave every man free’ was soon imprisoned in the Tower by James. He had been implicated by Lord Cobham who was arrested with his brother George Brook soon after the accession, on a charge of high treason. Cobham made wild accusations, but they were enough to allow Raleigh’s indictment. The charges of conspiring with Spain were ludicrous, but Raleigh was to be condemned to death.
At the show trial, he summoned, as Odysseus does with Athene’s aid, the old eloquence. He showed ‘courage, patience, dignity, intelligence’ said Sir Toby Matthew, ‘good temper, wit, learning, courage and judgement’ said Sir Dudley Carleton. The same pack of jackals that had snapped at Essex’s heels was now at his. Like Actaeon, Pentheus, Orpheus he could hear the crowd of his enemies calling for his blood. The law was twisted to suit. Coke disgraced himself, though one result may have been his own rethinking of the meaning of justice and the purpose of the law.
Raleigh defended himself with the little means at his disposal. ‘No man spoke better for himself ... in half a day the mind of all the company was changed from the extremest hate to the extremest pity.’ He was found guilty, condemned to death, and sent to the Tower prior to execution. He wrote letters begging for his life, on behalf of his family, which he afterwards regretted bitterly. And the touching last letter to his wife, thanking her for ‘your many troubles and cares taken for me, which – though they have not taken effect as you wished – yet my debt is to you never the lesse; but pay it I never shall in this world.’
He was not, in fact, to die. After a last-minute reprieve, in one of James’s disgraceful little rigmaroles, he was imprisoned for the next thirteen years, the occult and sacred thirteen, of the Celtic year, whose lunar months are echoed in the letters of the tree alphabet.
His rooms were on the second floor of the Bloody Tower in the inner wall. He had a terrace to walk on, visible from the river. He experimented, like an aged Magus, with herbs and spices, drugs and minerals. He thought about naval medical issues, dietetics, and hygiene. He had a furnace for experiments with metals, made tonics and cordials, distilled salt water to fresh, tried methods of preserving meat for sea voyages, cured tobacco, tried to devise remedies for scurvy. He supplied medicines to his friends and his ‘cordial’ cured Queen Anne.
He was the fox, the witch, an aged savant. He researched and wrote his History of the World, going down metaphorically among the dead, resurrecting past lives in words. As he wrote the History, like Odysseus in Homer ‘a mixed crowd of ghosts swarmed to the trench, men and women of all dates and every age’. He befriended the young Prince Henry, who became his great hope and who was working with his mother Anne of Denmark for Raleigh’s release. Raleigh was devastated by Henry’s death in 1612. The best future for the English monarchy was gone. It is said Raleigh in despair destroyed his notes for a further part to his History.
Raleigh was living history. His enemies died or lost their power or changed their views. He conceived another expedition to Guiana to find gold, enrich James, earn his permanent freedom. In 1617 he was free to go on his expedition. James had little to lose. Raleigh was to keep the peace with Spain who nominally laid claim to the territories, an almost impossible condition.
‘We have not yet come to the end of our trials’ said Ulysses to Penelope ‘there is still one last, great and hazardous adventure before me, which I must see through to its end whatever that may be.’ The story of Raleigh’s last voyage is sad. It was dogged by ill-luck, poor weather and sickness. While Raleigh was ill with fever disaster came. His son, Wat, went up-country and was killed in a skirmish with the Spaniards. ‘I never knewe what sorrow meant till nowe’ he wrote to his wife. He bemoaned his fate. ‘I am sure there is never a base slave in the fleete hath taken the paines and care that I have done; hath slept so little, and travilled so much.’
In the spring he set sail for England in the Destiny. The adventure was over and Raleigh’s hopes were wrecked again in its failure. There were no riches to swell James’s coffers. He returned from the sea to his death. There was a brief attempt at escape to France. In August 1618 he was again in the Tower.
He had broken the terms of his release by his activities in territories claimed by Spain, though that was inevitable. James had leaked information to Spain about the voyage, presumably to entrap Raleigh. He was now a pawn to be used in the Spanish negotiations that were under way. In a final irony he was accused of the old charges of conspiring with Spain, he who had consistently demonstrated his antagonism to Spanish power, to Catholicism, and to foreign intervention in English affairs. He was examined in private by a committee of six, headed by Francis Bacon. The dog had bitten his master, and now turned on his master’s old enemy also. It was a forgone conclusion. Raleigh was condemned to death.
James is supposed to have set the date for Raleigh’s execution. The 29th of October by chance, expediency, or otherwise was the day chosen. The first day of the twelfth Celtic lunar month, the month of ngetal, the writer’s reed, in the tree alphabet, and on the eve of Samhain, the great Celtic fire festival. Samhain was the time of divination of the future, a time of omens and auguries. Throughout Europe it was the time when the paths of the dead were opened, when bonfires were lit ‘t’burn the witches’, to eradicate the baleful forces. James was a man interested in witchcraft. Scotland one of the areas where the Celtic customs were still wholly active despite the Church.
If he did hope to exorcise the spirit of Raleigh, the wizard and sorcerer of the Tower, then the courageous manner of Raleigh’s death, and the knowledge of the crowd and the people of London that the man was being done to death for specious reasons, worked against him. Pym and others were in the crowd, who would remember the abuse of the law, the misuse of royal power, the defeat of intelligence by stupidity and malice. Elizabeth’s veil of the Goddess fell from James’s form. There was only a mean-spirited fool behind.
The Goddess was defeated, her myths quenched once more in this last sacrifice of the old Elizabethan England. The rivals had both gone down, and there could be no new consort for the Goddess. The Puritan ethic was being established with no place for her. And no place for the old reality of royalty. With historical irony Raleigh’s death prophesied the ultimate death of monarchy which would linger on into our own age, purposeless and secularised.
Odysseus is a combatant at Troy in the dying of an age of epic. He is the last of the heroes, those beings with the trappings of myth, who move out from their world into the modern world. He is the forerunner of that worship of intelligence, which creates Socrates and founds Greek Science and Mathematics. Raleigh emerges from the cyclic world of the Goddess and her sacrificed consorts into the open world of the single individual. In him the passing age of lawlessness, piracy, ambition, personal power exists alongside the new age of discipline, shared government, the search for personal liberty under the law. In his History time begins to tick. In his Voyages space begins to open.
Athene the power of Reason becomes internalised in Odysseus. The external gods are no longer necessary. The eye instead of mirroring the gods who look from without, begins to look from within and see the world and nature in their alien presence, to be objectified by subjective theory and touched by imagined experiment. Raleigh was a history of the Elizabethan times, in his own person, a catalogue of ships and men, events and places, thoughts and dreams, which were fading from sight. He was also a glass of possibility, an alternative around which ideas, not necessarily in agreement with his own, might gather, like the ghosts around the blood-filled trench seeking speech and life. His poetry sounds a new note of reflectiveness, of introspection and self-awareness. When he seeks self-justification, a balm to salve failure, a place to express frustration, room in which to brood on transience and life’s vanities, a method to communicate his understanding of the past and ideas for the future, it is to books and literary composition that he turns. Odysseus, like Merlin, has a secret. It is Mind and the Word.
Sunrise on the dawn of his execution. He is Orpheus whose speech and singing for a while charmed the birds from the trees. He is the reed, the royal plant, out of which writing instruments and music pipes are made. He has failed to win back his lost Goddess from the underworld, his fortune from the darkness. He waits for the Maenads who will tear his head from his shoulders. Thrown into the River Hebrus it will float singing to the sea. His limbs will be buried at Leibethra under the slopes of Olympus ‘where the nightingales sing more sweetly than anywhere in the world.’ Laid to rest in a cave at Antissa his head will continue to prophesy, or nursed in the lap of one of the servants of the God it will be made to sing, to bewail its fate, to answer questions, to advise. Diodorus Siculus said that Orpheus used the tree alphabet, where each letter signified a month, so follows the legend that he made the trees and rocks move, turning the cycle of the seasons and the earth in its rotation. He is the beginning of a cycle, and the end of a cycle.
‘Then at last the stones grew crimson’ says Ovid ‘with the poet’s blood, whose voice they could not hear.’ ‘The lyre gave out a plaintive sound, and the lifeless mouth made a sad murmur.’ And then, Ovid adds, ‘The ghost of Orpheus sank under the earth... and searching the fields of the Blessed he found his wife again and held her in his arms. There they walk together side by side: now she goes in front and he follows her, now he leads and looks back as he can do in safety now at his Eurydice.’
Sunrise on the dawn of his execution. The sun is rising in Scorpio, the sign of Essex his dead rival, the sign that opposed Raleigh’s Neptune, his guiding planet, at his birth. Pluto the planet of fate is setting in Taurus, Raleigh’s birth sign, and his natal Neptune position opposes the ascendant. Pluto in Taurus is said to be in detriment. Fate has overtaken Neptune’s last voyage. Saturn the planet of duty and loyalty, that which constrains, underlies, strengthens, chills a life, lies in a tee-square with Mars and opposing Jupiter, conjunct the Moon. Saturn ensured Raleigh returned to face his fate, his fortune and expansive journeys constrained, his energies and courage under Mars now opposed to feeling, he himself driven through the last gate.
Uranus planet of change squares his natal Uranus, activating the natal aspects to Neptune and Pluto, presaging the last change, the final journey. ‘Great are the joys, where heart obtains request’ he once wrote, ‘much is the ease, where troubled minds find rest.’ He had loved truly. ‘Farewell false love the oracle of lies’. He had in his ambition stormed Heaven, but when Heaven turned against him, he had not swerved in his allegiances, had never followed false love into ‘a way of error, a temple full of treason, in all effects contrary unto reason.’ Athene, Reason, was still his Goddess. Now Uranus summoned Fate and the long rule of Neptune, the voyage over Ocean, over the Moon’s bright sea of Love and elemental meaning, came to an end.
‘Desire himself runs out of breath, and getting, doth but gain his death. Desire nor Reason hath, nor rest, and blind doth seldom choose the best. Desire attained is not desire, but as the sinders of the fire.’ Mercury; mind, intelligence, wit, agent of Athene, was rising conjunct the ascendant in deep-searching Scorpio, opposing Neptune, abandoning life, but enabling his eloquence even there on the scaffold, allowing the wit, the last jesting comments to his friends.
The things he achieved by feeling, by imagination and idealism survived him. His poetry, fine in itself; the story of his life wrapped in the fabric of Elizabethan England; his pointing of the way to exploration and trade; his deep instinct for liberty of the individual. It is as an individual that Raleigh, like Odysseus, shares the stage with us. His mind would have competed with the best in any age. He is a symbol of the human voyage from cradle to grave. He is a reminder to us to be honest and loyal, to have courage, to endure, to return, not to fear feeling, not to betray affections for ambition, not to suffer fools gladly, not to be insulted lightly.
Raleigh, like Odysseus is the solitary man who makes his own fate, yet fulfils the destiny of the species. He is the man of the middle way, respectful towards the unknown powers, but making the most of what he is given. Storming Heaven in his beginnings, he hoped to slip into Heaven at the end, Heaven which he called ‘the Judicious, sharp spectator’ of this ‘short Comedy’.
He stands for the equality of mind and feeling, the potentially equal value of all of us. He stands for life. Not life as the medieval man and woman was expected to live it, as a stone in the cathedral of society, but life as lived by the single one, responding to the World and to the Self, to event and desire, with will and reason. The ‘last of the Elizabethans’ was in himself the symbol of that which was to oppose all ritual, autocratic, inherited order, and replace it with fluid, democratic, government by ability. Shakespeare’s speech about degree and order in Troilus and Cressida is put into precisely the wrong mouth. Ulysses is respectful of order, but by his actions, in his life, he is part of the process of disorder, of change. As Ulysses passes by the gods are let loose, Troy falls, the oceans open up, the Underworld is exhibited to the human eye, individuals are remembered, and kings are killed.
Raleigh goes bravely to the scaffold. The crowd is not the ancient crowd of Maenads, of Bacchantes, of the dogs who pursue Actaeon. They are not the murderers. They come as crowds do come, to be witnesses, to testify to the ritual, to make a communion with the living or the dead. They become the ones who saw, the intelligence which will carry the news through their society and not always in ways that the authorities would like. They are the host of sacred ones, made a sacred crew by event, by portent. They are the guardians of the head of Bran, the rescuers of the head of Orpheus, who will place it, prophesying, in their temple.
By initiation in the rite, by witnessing it, they become complicit though innocent, tainted though purified, criminals though guiltless. They witness on a stage the mortality of Everyman. They feel, as in tragic theatre, empathy, the emotions of the tragic hero. They see the edge of the axe, the knife-edge that lies between life and death, the Razor Bridge over the abyss that the hero must cross. They see how precarious being is, and also how much is achievable despite transience. They come to mourn a life and to celebrate it. They come to see a conclusion of a story that is also the beginning of a story. They are the ones in whom Justice burns for or against. They are the ones who love or hate, admire or despise. They are those who can say ‘I am the one. I was there.’
Some participant says that Raleigh should turn and kneel so that his head is to the East, towards the rising sun. So that the shadows should fall away from the strike, so that he might point in the direction of his Saviour’s tribulation on earth, the cross symbolised by those outstretched arms. ‘So the heart be right, it is no great matter which way the head lieth’ he replies. He tells the headsman to act when he stretches out his hands. He stretches them out, once, and then again, the headsman failing to act on his first signal. ‘Strike, man, strike.’ he tells him. The headsman obeys the command of the god’s representative. The severed head is lifted up high. And a voice cries out in the crowd ‘We have not such another head to cut off.’
That cry goes up over Bran, and Orpheus, correlative with that cry of mourning over Adonis, Attis, Osiris. The cry for our mortality, our fragile existence, out of which before the marriage with Death, we can make a glory. In the myths the gods and mortals die and are killed again and again, the same god in many different ways, the same mortal in many different representations. It is life itself, which meets death over and over in the repetition that complements the repetition of birth and generation, life that by repetition is re-born, in our only re-incarnation.
Raleigh is loyal to Athene even in death. She gives him stature, self-control, the wit to jest, the eloquence to speak without faltering, the courage to maintain the great illusion of his part in the play to the end. All eyes are on him. ‘I, the world’s eye.’ His dialogue with himself we know goes on to the end. It is the conversation within ourselves that reason allows. It is the tool of intellect, which gives us freedom, of thought, of speech, of belief, of understanding. Freedom from the gods. Dangerous and delightful freedom. Freedom which seduces like the Sirens whose song we do not know, and Freedom which torments us out on the wine-dark sea, blows us away, drives us under, spews us out onto a foreign shore with an alien horizon. Freedom which is will, or appetite, which is reason or unreason, which is order or chaos.
What takes away our freedom we hate with an abiding hate, person or State, circumstance or event. We are so filled with Athene. And what matters is that a life should be successful. And success is measured only by that life itself, by the inward journey, and the inner struggles, and the inner voyage, in how we handle ourselves on those strange islands, on how we endure, on whether we return. On Odysseus’s cunning and loyalty, on Penelope’s faithfulness and affections. That loyalty, and that faithfulness and endurance which Homer symbolises in the dog, Argus, found lying, vermin-ridden, on the midden, by Odysseus, after his nineteen year’s absence. In the dog’s eye is recognition. The world of the creatures and ourselves is one world. In Odysseus’s eye is a tear. He does not shed many.
Like Odysseus, Raleigh is Everyman. He is the last, and one of the first. The personal life, the individual presence which is more important and more vital than State or Religion, Species or Discipline. At the core of that life is loyalty, to a destiny, to an image of self, to reason, to self-control, to beauty, to adventure, to feeling and affection. He emerges out of the past to take his place in the modern present.
And he brings with him the sacred. He recognises what is outside himself, what he has not created. He respects the powers that influence. He takes the middle road. And he does not cease to be the trickster, the fox, the materialist, the advocate, the mediator, the fulcrum of the balance. In his death Justice failed, and the recognition of that was a spur to a new search for law without arbitrary prerogative.
As the lone mind against Fate, Raleigh is our alter ego. He triumphs, even in death, through courage and intelligence. He is ultimately more important than others who changed the immediate course of events. He is the participant in the drama of all events, of any event. He is the underlying texture of the modern mind, the stream of consciousness that flows out from Odysseus. To the Greeks it brought the challenge of Pure Reason, in the dialectic of Socrates. To the modern world it brings the challenge of that same Pure Reason in the unfolding of Science.
In Raleigh, as in Odysseus, there is still the charm of participation in an older ethos, of powers and mysteries, the uncharted and unknown. He has the same resources we have, the body and the brain, passion and will, intelligence and effort. He voyages past similar islands. He meets with similar adversity. He needs the same self-belief, the knowledge that we have it in our own power to achieve our full humanity. ‘Stab at thee he that will, no stab thy soul can kill.’
The poet who replied to Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd’ with as withering an analysis of the transience of beauty and of life itself, as we might find anywhere, also evoked the final action of any life, making peace with existence and mortality. ‘Unfold thy flocks, and leave them to the fields, to feed on hills or dales, where likes them best, of what the summer or the spring time yields, for love and time hath given thee leave to rest.’
Copyright © 2000 A. S. Kline, All Rights Reserved
This work MAY be FREELY reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any NON-COMMERCIAL purpose.
Last Modified 08/02/2000