Old Poem Revue #2 by Aaron Belz
Raleigh’s Last Poem
Before being beheaded, Sir Walter Raleigh served as one of Queen Elizabeth’s “Sea Dog” anti-Spanish pirates; founded two failed settlements at Roanoke, Virginia; introduced Europe to the curative effects of tobacco; twice ventured to South America in search of El Dorado; wrote a lot of poetry — some quite funny and cutting, like “The Nymph’s Reply” to Chris Marlowe; and ultimately found himself on the wrong side of an England-Spain treaty.
Raleigh possessed an incisive wit. Even at his own execution, he reportedly observed the axe’s sharpness and quipped that it was the only physician capable of curing all ills in one stroke. When his body trembled in its final moments, he told bystanders not to worry, the shaking was due to his “ague.” Yes, a bit like the Flight of the Conchords’ “I’m Not Crying.” Afterward, his head was embalmed and sent to his wife, who kept it in a velvet bag.
In other words, Raleigh was the kind of guy you’d want to meet for drinks. He was an adventurer, a contemporary of Shakespeare, a Renaissance Man’s Renaissance Man before Dos Equis was even a brand. He was real: while neoclassical allusions flourished in English poetry, he kept his verse idiomatic. He was good: while his fellow expeditioners were inventing the transatlantic slave trade, he was taking a proto-#metoo position against the carpe-diem-style poetics of Marlowe, Campion, et al.
In fact, though it’s not a 21stcentury thing to say, Sir Walter Raleigh was a man of virtue. Unlike his more popular successors, he was a Lord and Gentleman, husband of one wife, faithful father of three sons—given neither to the moon, nor to drink, nor was he a philanderer, nor ruined by opium and STDs. My sense after having toured the Tower of London many years ago, and having read the inscriptions in rock that are now protected behind Lucite, is that England has valorized Raleigh more and more as time has passed.
The night before Raleigh died, he wrote an eight-line poem. Like David Bowie’s “Eight Line Poem,” it was written in London. But that is where the similarities end:
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 wander’d 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.
The personification of “Time” isn’t so interesting, nor, for the mercenary mercantilist who founded Roanoke, is the metaphor of failed investment. There’s nothing really cute or twisty or particularly metaphysical or Elizabethan about this poem in any aspect. But to me, it’s a fascinating text for at least two reasons:
First is its weight of irony. In Sir Walter Raleigh we have what must have been one of the most colorful, abundant, heroic life stories — all joys enjoyed, all ways wandered, oceans crisscrossed, deals made, people and logistics managed at a monarch’s command. The man brought tobacco to England for the first time #Legend. I personally smoked cigarettes named after himwhen I was a teenager and later spent seven years living 40 minutes north of a city named after him. Yet his own measure of his life is 8 metrical feet in lines two and five. Nothing much. The poem’s focus is on death: an investment gone south.
Which brings me to the second reason I love this poem, and that is for its allusion to the King James translation of Ecclesiastes, which had been commissioned by King James in 1604 and published in 1611. It was, perhaps, a bestseller at the time.
Ecclesiastes is an old Jewish book about the futility of investment: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”Everything is “vanity,” says the author of Ecclesiastes; “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Raleigh, too, repeats “dust” twice in his poem. The final chapter of Ecclesiastes (which is chapter 11, I kid you not) focuses on investment in particular, saying (I paraphrase) you can send your harvest out on a boat, and you might get back a good return, or you might not. The one thing you know you’ll get is death.
But the supremo-supremo irony is that King James also decreed the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Aaron Belz has an MFA from NYU and a PhD in American Lit from Saint Louis University. He’s published three books of poetry and has a fourth, Soft Launch, due from Persea later this year. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.