A Life by Sir Walter Raleigh
Posted on 11th January 2021
Adventurer, explorer, pirate, scourge of the Spanish Main and man of masculine virtues and rugged pursuits Sir Walter Raleigh was also a poet as indeed any good gentleman should be; but he was as ruthless in pursuit of fame, fortune and the favour of the Queen as he was delicate with inkwell, parchment and pen.
The son of a wealthy Devonshire landowner but not of noble birth when upon his return from the Americas in 1585, he was knighted by the Queen he was seen by many as an interloper in the Court of Elizabeth; and having achieved his lifelong ambition he proceeded to flaunt it with an arrogance and a swagger that made him a great many enemies.
Yet he was nothing if not a realist and his poetry is laced with the sardonic wit of someone who knows the fate that awaits those who rise outrageously above their station.
He was to survive the death of Elizabeth, but he never found favour with her successor King James and his enemies had not gone away, instead they hovered like vultures over a body not yet dead but in a state of decay. Only his status as a hero and the affection of the English people prevented retribution by those whose ire he had long ago roused.
But fame and old age would not be enough to save him from failure and its consequences and in 1618, he was taken from his imprisonment in the Tower of London and beheaded to a collective groan of disapproval from those who witnessed it. For as he had earlier written:
Even such is time,
That takes in trust
Our youth, Our joys
Our all we have
And pays us but
With earth and dust.
What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division,
Our mother's wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is,
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss.
Our graves that hide us from the setting sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, that's no jest.
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