Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618) has been both cursed and celebrated in this part of the world, just as he was in England in his time. He was a favourite of Elizabeth I and just the opposite under James I. In the Caribbean he is associated with imperialism and colonization and the search for El Dorado which have caused some pain in the region’s history. Yet his creation of project El Dorado has earned him an acclaimed place in Guyana’s heritage since it created both history and myth, and his The Discovery of Guiana (short title) is hailed as the founding document in Guyanese literature.
Writers after him have revelled in the unfathomable ocean of the imagination that this quest for the city of gold has provided, and they are still writing about it. Derek Walcott has summed up this relationship to Ralegh in a line of poetry which talks about “ancestral murderers and poets.” It refers to the curse of plunder in the history but acknowledges a debt that Caribbean writers owe to him; he is an “ancestral poet” to whom Walcott expresses some kinship. Apart from the politics, it is this side of Sir Walter that is of interest here.
In the Caribbean we often hear of Ralegh as a villain in the political historical context, but hardly ever hear that he was also a poet. One may describe him as a minor English poet but in the context of that poetry he is a writer of some significance. He is named among the ‘silver poets’ of the sixteenth century, so called by CS Lewis because of their minor status as against the major bards such as Spenser and Sidney, but also because of their characteristics. This included being a ‘plain’ writer who discarded the heavy ornamentation of other Renaissance poets whose work is studded with classical references.
Another characteristic is that he wrote in the pastoral tradition, also with elements of the courtly love tradition. He therefore stands out for one of the important poems within the movement. It is called The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (1596). The pastoral verse that inspired this is a tradition taken up by writers in which there is a concept of the countryside, the forests and green fields as the ideal environment in which life is pure and carefree as against the corrupt impurity of the town. It is called ‘pastoral’ because it is a world inhabited by shepherds and sheep in eternal happiness in green pastures.
In the courtly love tradition poets write of their undying love and worship of women who are always muses; sometimes inaccessible but often erotic mistresses, temptresses, fickle and cruel sadists who love them passionately one day and desert them the next. Ralegh joins other ‘silver poets’ like Sir Thomas Wyatt and The Earl of Surrey in this writing and has produced poems such as Farewell to False Love and As You Came from the Holy Land of Walsingham.
But the important contribution made to the traditions by Sir Walter is through The Nymph’s Reply. It was written in response to the perfect poem in this order, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (1592) by major poet-playwright Christopher Marlowe. Well within the pastoral, a shepherd woos a nymph by promising her everything belonging to the evergreen, eternal spring and youth, a life free of care and full of love.
Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
Ralegh composed a reply to this pitch given by the nymph which debunks the tradition in the way some of the major poets have done – Donne, Shakespeare – whose rebuttals have also included veiled replies to Marlowe. Sir Walter rejects the shepherd’s promises as impractical, out of touch with reality or just plain lies. The poem is therefore anti-pastoral in exposing the weaknesses of a romantic belief in the eternal bliss of the idyllic environment.
The poem is also reminiscent of Shakespeare who in many sonnets treat themes of mutability, transience and mortality. Ralegh introduces the ravages of time, harsh seasonal changes that are inevitable, and the fact that shepherds have to work hard and face challenges. He makes the nymph challenge her suitor to change the qualities of nature, stop time and aging, and replace need with continuous bounty.
Another interesting factor of this poetry of four to five centuries ago is the fictional ‘reply’ of one poet to another. These are not just intertextual responses and references that have always been a part of literature, but the fictional reply of one character to another. It is similar to what takes place in the contemporary poetic traditions of the Caribbean. It is found in the picong element of the calypso, in the wars among reggae singers and dancehall artistes, such as the ‘Gully-Gaza’ feud between Mavado and Vybes Kartel. Most recently this tradition has escalated in chutney. Men will complain about being deserted by their companions causing them to turn to drink or melancholy. That is not far removed from the courtly love. The trend now is for female chutney artistes to assume the persona of the woman in the tradition and elaborate on the faults of the man that caused her to justifiably leave him.
The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.
Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten
In folly ripe, in season rotten.
Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.
Sir Walter Ralegh