Sir Walter Ralegh
Sir Walter Ralegh may not yet have inspired a great biography, but historians have not failed for want of trying: Edmund Gosse, Charles Kingsley, Martin Hume, and Henry Thoreau are among the dozens of writers who have produced biographies of him, though Edward Gibbon (perhaps significantly) gave up the attempt. Most of them, moreover, recognized Ralegh as the most Elizabethan of the Elizabethans, as the martyr, destroyed by the first Stuart, who epitomized for succeeding generations the reign of Good Queen Bess; yet they could not describe his life with the insight and plausibility that they brought to his era. If, in the last two or three decades, this situation has begun to alter, we still have some way to go before reaching the standard of the lives of Elizabeth herself.
The Victorians found it difficult to avoid sternness when dealing with a dilettante, even one who was acknowledged as a national hero. The Dictionary of National Biography had to recognize popular sentiment by according Ralegh twenty pages, only ten fewer than Elizabeth received, and more than three times as many as Lord Burghley, the Queen’s indispensable minister. But of the sober Burghley the Dictionary said, “Without him the reign…would not have been as glorious as it was,” and it saluted him as illustrious, attractive, and blessed with a paramount genius. For Ralegh, on the other hand, there was a grudging and ambiguous verdict: “It is by his long, costly, and persistent effort to establish this first of English colonies [Virginia] that Ralegh’s name is most favorably known.” Considering that the Roanoke settlement was a disaster, such a conclusion was barely complimentary.
That he had shown personal heroism in large measure, particularly on the high seas, nobody doubted. Most biographers also agreed that Ralegh was a clever courtier, that he wrote some passable poetry, that his History of the World was impressive in an oldfashioned way, and that he was an invaluable promoter of empire. In England at the height of imperialism, when swashbuckle dominated the country’s history, Ralegh, with his cloak, his tobacco, his piracy, and his arrogant chauvinism, could not help but seem heroic.
Yet historians were uneasy. No character in history has endured so relentlessly the adjective “flawed,” as if the appropriate metaphor for Ralegh’s life were an ostentatious jewel, reduced in value by its imperfections. His biographers were made uneasy by his hauteur, his vanity, his posturings, his unreliability, his penchant for deception and intrigue, his frivolity, the hatred he aroused, the grief and disaster he brought on friends and relatives, the easy distraction that left him familiar with many fields but master of none—in sum, the apparent lack of real substance. How could they grant the kind of approval reserved for Elizabeth or Burghley to a dilettante who never seemed properly serious, and whose sporadic attempts at seriousness seemed merely to add one more…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.