Reading Walter Raleigh’s Poetry of Blood


The Boyhood of Raleigh, John Everett Millais, 1870

by Ed Simon

Raleigh is telling how he discovered Earthly Paradise in Guyana the previous year, over there where El Dorado lies hidden. He licks his lips recalling the flavor of iguana eggs and closes his eyes describing the fruits and the leaves that never fall from the treetops…. Raleigh’s friend, a baldhead with mischievous eyes, knows that this Guyana is a swamp where the sky is always black with mosquitos, but he listens in silence and nods his head because he also knows that Raleigh isn’t lying.

— Eduardo Galeano, Genesis (1985)

Four centuries ago, Sir Walter Raleigh, last of the Elizabethans, of those adventurers, of those deeply problematic plunderers who endure now more in place name than in posterity, placed his head upon the block and went on his last journey to the west. One imagines Raleigh staring towards the direction of the golden sunset, its color reminding him of that mythic city of El Dorado, which he’d repeatedly failed to find in the South American jungles, and to where he was sailing when he attacked the Spanish galleons, the immediate cause of his final misfortune.

Prior to that, he’d been imprisoned for more than a decade by King James I, unfairly implicated in an assassination conspiracy known as the Main Plot. Occasionally the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I (save for when he wasn’t), Raleigh had initially been received by her replacement, with one contemporary reporting that Raleigh was capable of making James “laugh so that he was ready to beshitt his Briggs.” Such laughter wouldn’t last however, as Raleigh became inconveniently implicated in the supposed plot, the rare accused crime which he was not actually guilty of. Regardless of the merits of the man’s character, Raleigh’s thirteen years imprisoned in the Tower of London gave him time to write some of the most startlingly beautiful Renaissance verse, poetry which in its plain style often approaches perfection. What more appropriate way to mark the quadricentennial of his death than to commit to his rediscovery as one of our great poets, compromised though he may be?

The explorer is often remembered as a dignified refugee from the Elizabethan world of courtier scholars, who was abandoned by a Stuart monarchy that represented an increasing capitulation to a world less romantic than that of their predecessors. That’s the license we see displayed in the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais’ 1870 The Boyhood of Raleigh. In Millais’ imagination, a young, blonde-haired Raleigh sits in drab black, chin cradled in hand, listening in concentrated attention to a swarthy, exoticized Genoese sailor who tells tale of navigable lands west of the sunset.

Almost as obvious in symbolism as the toy ship at the lower left of the canvas is that Genoese sailor, whose impartation of adventure stories signifies a passing of colonial destiny from the Mediterranean to the British, a visual enactment of translatio studii et imperii. What Millais’ painting also inadvertently enacts was another, subtler transition, for Raleigh was not just an explorer, but indeed a poet as well, for whom those two vocations had more in common than might first be assumed. As Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker argue in The Many-Headed Hydra, “the cause of a New World empire depended on not only the colonist’s trifling beads but also the poet’s trifling books.”

Appropriate that Millais has as his subject the mediation of stories, for Raleigh’s hidden contribution has always been his poetry, often projected onto the very land itself. Raleigh is a veritable incarnation of his age, “the archetypal imperialist adventurer” as Linebaugh and Rediker call him, observing that Raleigh “served as a model for the exploration, trade, conquest, and plantation of English mercantilism.” Millais’ painting flatter Raleigh and exemplify our culture’s dominant perspective on a complicated man whose name is widely known, but whom the public rarely considers.

Raleigh, as he is memorialized, is a kind of English conquistador, an adventurer associated with the mysterious lost colony at Roanoke and the courtier of apocryphal pablum who prevents Queen Elizabeth’s slippers from being muddied by throwing his coat into a puddle, for whom literary historian Michael Schmidt remarked that the explorer was the sovereign’s “favorite because he exceeded all the other courtiers in the inventiveness and extravagance of his courtesies,” a figure of whom his 17th Century biographer John Aubrey described as a “tall, handsome and bold man… he was damnable proud.” Historians, however, have complicated this myth, with Raleigh’s military actions during the 1580 Siege of Smerwick during Ireland’s Second Desmond Rebellion being rightly understood as an atrocity.

Raleigh would oversee the slaughter of six hundred surrendering Italian, Spanish, and Irish troops, with his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert writing that “the heads of all those (of what sort soever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies and brought to the place where he encamped at night, and should there be laid on the ground,” explaining that “none could come into his tent for any cause by commonly he must pass through a lande of heads.” Historian Daniel K. Richter recounts that a contemporary observer noted that this caused “Greater terror of the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk and friends.”

Irish heads on pikes foreshadowed Raleigh’s ultimate fate, just as surely as Milais’ toy boat prefigured his career. If post-colonial theorists and historians have necessarily complicated Raleigh’s legacy, seeing not the dashing privateer, but the pirate; not the sophisticated courtier, but the war criminal; not the explorer, but the importer of a dangerous narcotic, then the general public thinks barely of Raleigh at all. Such are the vagaries of a Washington Post article from 2011 which reported that a 4th grade textbook entitled Our Virginia soberly repeats the common error that Raleigh himself charted the North American mainland, a landmass he never set foot on. Raleigh, for most it would seem, is more the capital of North Carolina than a Renaissance man.

Yet despite his myriad sins and crimes, Raleigh would still be considered the Renaissance man exemplar, as sullied as that designation may now be. While I’d argue that the recovery of his poetic verse is an important scholarly and editorial project, his “non-fiction” prose writing alone confers upon him the status as one of the most important writers of the English Renaissance, where the relative factuality of some of his accounts merit the square quotes in the description of that genre as practiced by him.

With an almost Borgesian wisdom, Raleigh understood maps to be their own type of fiction, writing that the “fictions (or let them be called conjectures) painted in maps do serve only to mislead such discoverers… but to keep their own credit, they cannot serve always.” Sometimes unfairly categorized by his contemporaries as a notorious atheist, Raleigh at least did understand the contingencies of truth and falsehood when writing an engaging narrative, where one must exonerate those colorful, lying maps with their terra incognita, for they don’t always serve the truth, but sometimes illustrate an itinerary to that more colorful country of imagination. Raleigh’s motto would aptly be a line of verse from his contemporary Sir Philip Sidney’s romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Old Arcadia, where though the later may be speaking of Elizabeth, the sentiment (as with the explorer) could also be oriented towards the world of fantasy in contrast to the dreary particulars of reality: “Reason looke to thy selfe, I serve a goddess.”

This goddess of Wonder might as well be the dominant presence in the narratives of exploration which stud English Renaissance literature. Critic Jeffrey Knapp has convincingly argued in An Empire Nowhere that “the discovery of America spurred the English to write,” claiming that England’s relative colonial belatedness when compared to her Catholic neighbors encouraged the production of a fantastic literature that imagined “America,” while the Spanish and Portuguese explored the actual thing. Pointing towards works as varied as Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, Shakespeare’s 1610 The Tempest, and Francis Bacon’s 1624 New Atlantis, Knapp argues that the Golden Age of English literature was born both as a means of compensation and as an expression of wonder, which Stephen Greenblatt describes in Marvelous Possessions as the “central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience.”

Raleigh’s contention about the accuracy of maps is from his massive, unfinished compendium The History of the World, written in fits and starts while imprisoned for more than a decade in the Tower. That volume would be impressive enough, but it’s his short 1595 travel account The Discovery of Guiana which more than solidifies him as a particular, cracked type of epic poet. Elizabeth’s 1584 patent charged Raleigh “to discover, search, find out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian prince, not inhabited by Christian people… to have, hold, occupy & enjoy,” and his colonialism was writ in the very language of possessive romance, for as scholar Roland Greene argues in Unrequited Conquests, “Petrarchism is part of that imperialist project.” Raleigh forged his actual experiences alongside invention in the smithy of his imagination and produced a slender little thing which did as much as any other book from the Age of Exploration to invent a particular, paradisiacal dream of El Dorado – of America.

Raleigh describes a country along the Orinoco River as “the most beautiful country that ever mine eys beelf: and whereas all that we had seen before was nothing but woods, prickles, bushes, and thorns, here we behelf plains of twenty miles ineght, the grass short and green, and in diverse parts groves of trees by themselves.” Protestant that he was, he was also inheritor of a certain medieval typological thinking, with Raleigh’s account seeing him pass from that fallen world east of Eden into the veritable Garden itself. Based on his own highly embellished experiences of the South American jungle, it wouldn’t be out of place to imagine an account of passing the Seraphim’s flaming swords which guard the entrance to Paradise, for in the rain forest it is “as if they had been by all the art and labor in the world so made of purpose: and still as we rowed, the Deer came down feeding by the water’s side, as if they had been used to a keeper’s call.” In heaven even the wild are as if tame.

The Discovery of Guiana is a chimerical book. Categorizable alongside other masterpieces of early modern exploration literature, such as Richard Hakluyt’s 1582 Diverse Voyages or his massive Principle Navigations published in various editions from 1589 to 1600, or Samuel Purchas’ 1614 Purchas, his Pilgrim (both of whom incorporated Raleigh’s accounts), Raleigh’s pamphlet also evokes more archaic, romantic associations. In a proto-scientific era obsessed with filling in the gaps, Raleigh understood the evocations of colorful, cartographic sea monsters painted deftly. Other 16th century accounts of exploration, such as Thomas Harriot’s 1588 A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, penned after an expedition to the Raleigh-financed Roanoke colony, eschewed the fantastic in favor of the sober, almost scientific recounting of flora, fauna, and people.

Such is Harriot’s objectivity that anthropologist’s still praise the accuracy of illustrator John White’s depictions of the Lenape, who were ultimately felled by both disease and genocide. Raleigh, though he actually saw the New World himself, eschewed verisimilitude in favor of poetry, finely wrought. Where Harriot presents detailed ethnography about the Virginians, Raleigh’s account owes more to the fabulist tradition of medieval travel, such as the 14th century narratives of the concocted “Sir John Mandeville.”

In that medieval classic, credulous Englishmen read about monstrosities and miracles in Africa and Asia, by a man who claimed to be a knight travelling amongst the sundry lands. Raleigh similarly populates his newly found lands with terrifying cannibals, fierce Amazons, and the headless akephaloi – the difference between the two accounts being that Raleigh actually lived, and also that he knew his tales to be exquisitely wrought deceptions. What Raleigh offered was the promise of El Dorado, a land more akin to the medieval realm of Cockaigne, or Utopia, than it was of the fetid jungles which he had actually found.

Rather than providing explication of folkways, vocabulary, and societal organization as Harriot did, Raleigh writes that “the Incas had a garden of pleasure… which had all kinds of garden herbs, flowers and trees of gold and silver, an invention and magnificence till then never seen.” Harriot was producing science, while his employer was content to still write in the idiom of myth, cataloging not the rain forest, but rather the very Garden of Eden. In The Stage Play World, historian Julia Briggs describes Raleigh’s exploratory discourse as “Riven with inconsistences” as mingling a “factual account of his travels with a fictional discourse of exotic and idealized lands.”

But it would be a mistake to divide mythos and logos too radically from one another in the genre conventions of the early modern travel narrative. Raleigh merely made explicit what was often subconscious in those other texts, for as Greenblatt reminds us in Renaissance Self Fashioning, “descriptive terms are shared in the Renaissance by literary romance and travelers’ accounts… because the two modes of vision are mutually reinforcing.” In that sense, Raleigh was not merely a discoverer of American lands, he was their inventor too, and as a poet writing in the idiom of those discoveries he must rank as one of the most vital of the era. Vitality is not synonymous with morality however, and as we collectively face our own rapidly heating west, brought about in part by the very “America” whom Raleigh was so instrumental in penning the epic of, we must confront the possibility that it is a dark poem for which we’d perhaps be better off had it not been written. Erasure, however, is impossible (and besides, if it were, none of us would be here to consider it). Better to remember that poetry is always amenable to revision and editing.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.