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Sir Walter Raleigh

Born in 1552?, in Devonshire, England, Sir Walter Raleigh was a writer and explorer during the Romantic period.  In 1569, Raleigh served as a volunteer in the French Huguenot army.  He attended Oxford University in 1572.  By 1578, Raleigh set sail on his first voyage to America, and in 1585, sponsored the first English colony on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina.

Sir Walter Raleigh

After Queen Elizabeth I’s death, James I succeeded to the throne.  But King James I did not approve of Raleigh.  In 1603, Raleigh was convicted of plotting against the king and was sentenced to death.  However, King James changed the sentence to life imprisonment and sent Raleigh to the Tower of London.  While in prison, Raleigh wrote his first volume of History of the World and several of his poems.  After 13 years had passed, Raleigh made the proposal to King James to give him a fortune of gold from his expedition if he (Raleigh) could be allowed to return to Guiana.  James I agreed “on the condition that no offense be given to the Spanish.  Raleigh agreed, but during the 1616 expedition, Raleigh’s son attacked a Spanish settlement.  Raleigh was seized, sent back to England. In 1603, King James invoked the death sentence, and in 1618, Raleigh was beheaded.

Among the most notable of Sir Walter’s poems, “Cynthia” in The Ocean’s Love to Cynthia has created the most critical acclaim.  The theme of the poetry is Raleigh’s fall from grace as a powerful courtier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Critic Robert Stillman described the theme as “... the discovery that the mythology surrounding a queen whom one worships is mere mystification, and that time leads all things to decay, including love and language”.

According to Stillman, Raleigh laments this loss of favor with his Queen, causing the poet anguish in the frustration of wanting to get back the position that once was his.  His poetry here is full of symbolism:  all of the powerful, mythological virtues ascribed to the Queen add to heighten the “aesthetic, religious, and philosophical legitimacy” of her sovereignty.

In the progression of the poem, Raleigh sees the loss of the Queen’s affection for him as tragic in the sense that he has also lost everything that the symbols stood for – the validation of what the throne meant to him.  From the loss, the poet recognizes that he has also lost his identity and status.  The demystification of the Queen meant the loss of “all that was valuable in the world,” and that this loss leads to his own decline “as if it were a microcosmic version of the decay of the world”.

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