Thursday, 30 July 2009

An onion, not the potato!

The famous Millais painting of his boyhood, the Wall in Budleigh which bears his name, the picturesque Elizabethan farmhouse in East Budleigh where he was born… all these make Budleigh Salterton proud to be associated with Devon’s hero Sir Walter Raleigh.

So it was an enthusiastic and interested audience in Budleigh’s Peter Hall which welcomed Ivan Roots, Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University, when he gave a talk about the great man’s poetry on Wednesday 29 June 2009 as part of the town’s Festival of Music and the Arts. http://www.budleigh-festival.org.uk/


(Above: The portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh in All Saints East Budleigh, a copy of the work by Frederico Zuccaro now in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

The event was a prelude to the excellent performance of Even such is Time, the cantata by local composer Nicholas Marshall, (right) based on one of Raleigh’s most famous poems.

Raleigh is a complex figure, like many of his age, and like his name, which has been spelt and pronounced in a variety of ways, as Professor Roots explained at the start of his talk. For the sake of consistency on this website, and so as not to encourage Devon County Council to re-design hundreds of road signs, I will stick with tradition. But apparently the latest trend is for his name to be spelt as Ralegh, and to be pronounced as ‘rawly.’

Sir Walter is also credited with many legends. Sitting on that Wall listening to ‘an old salt’ as depicted by Millais (left) is sadly fictional, we were told. And the story of the Queen and the Puddle, shown (below, right) on the Sir Walter Raleigh pub sign in East Budleigh, is pretty dubious as well, it seems. But Professor Roots believes that there is a “poetic truth” in the story of how Raleigh spread his cloak over a muddy patch to save the royal shoes – and it would have been his best and most expensive designer cloak.


For Raleigh was a showman, a performance artist who loved an audience, even at his show trial in 1603 and on the scaffold 15 years later. He was also an explorer, courtier, devoted father and husband, sailor, manager, chemist, MP, historian, religious enquirer and gardener, we learnt. “You name it – he was it.”


We all know about Raleigh’s horticultural experiments with the potato; but it was as a multi-layered onion that we should appreciate this most Renaissance Man, explained Professor Roots (left) in his lively and humorously presented talk. Each fascinating layer as it is peeled away gives us a new insight into the achievements of this remarkable man.

But was he a poet, wondered the professor after starting his talk with a brief and helpful biography of Raleigh. “Not a great poet,” was his view. Sir Walter’s early poems were extremely conventional, addressed to imaginary women like hundreds of other courtly compositions of the age. The later poetry is more interesting, making “quite good, subtle points.” (Below: Hayes Barton, East Budleigh, where Raleigh was born around 1552)

One work, attributed to Raleigh and addressed ‘To his Son’ was amusingly quoted by Professor Roots since its use of the word ‘wag’ had for many years caused him to think that the poet might have been writing about wives and girl friends. It was from the 18th century Dr Johnson that the professor finally learnt that ‘wag’ could mean ‘a young man’ – Raleigh’s poem consists simply of a witty riddle and its explanation:

Three things there be that prosper up apace,
And flourish while they grow asunder far;
But on a day, they meet all in a place,
And when they meet, they one another mar.

And they be these: the Wood, the Weed, the Wag:
The Wood is that that makes the gallows tree;
The Weed is that that strings the hangman's bag;
The Wag, my pretty knave, betokens thee.

Now mark, dear boy—while these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild;
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.

The problem with identifying Sir Walter’s poems is that many were never published and the manuscripts simply disappeared. Even one of the best-known, on which Nicholas Marshall’s cantata is based, hints in its first line that it may follow on from a preceding stanza, now possibly lost, in which the subject is compared to Time:

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust!

This poem, composed shortly before his execution, was quoted as evidence of Raleigh’s Christian beliefs; during his lifetime he had been accused of atheism.

Another well-known Raleigh poem, The Lie http://www.poetry-archive.com/r/the_lie.html was quoted by Professor Roots as an example of the poet’s distaste for court life, and we were told that Raleigh’s History of the World, composed during his imprisonment in the Tower of London, was condemned by Elizabeth’s successor James I as “too saucy about kings.” Such hints of supposed anti-monarchical sentiments, along with Oliver Cromwell’s enthusiasm for the History, have made Raleigh something of a republican icon in America. (Left: Execution at the Tower of London, where Raleigh spent years of captivity following the accession of King James I. Engraving by George Cruikshank, from The Tower of London by Harrison Ainsworth, 1840)

Like Cromwell, on whom Professor Roots is an acknowledged expert, Sir Walter is a multi-faceted figure. He had many faults – greed, arrogance and ruthlessness being among them – but his industry and his vision were the positive qualities that emerged from the talk. Raleigh’s goal, to create Virginia as an English-speaking presence in the New World in order to counter Spanish influence, was achieved in spectacular fashion after his death. (Right: The statue of Sir Walter Raleigh in East Budleigh)

And for me, Raleigh’s wit on the scaffold – remarking on the executioner’s axe as “a sharp Medicine”, but “a Physician for all Diseases” – is as breathtakingly cool and admirable as that of another, more saintly, Tudor victim of a monarch’s anger some 80 years earlier: Sir Thomas More, celebrated for telling the executioner that his beard was completely innocent of any crime, and did not deserve the axe. In a final theatrical act to match any of Raleigh’s performances this former Lord Chancellor and fallen favourite of a spiteful Henry VIII is supposed to have placed his beard away from the block so that it would not be harmed.

Professor Ivan Roots is a former President of the Devon History Society and of the Cromwell Association. He has published widely in Stuart history, notably The Great Rebellion, 1642-1660 (5th edn 1996) and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1989). His Cromwellian and Restoration Devon was published in 2004.

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