Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Analysis of Sir Walter Relegh's "Time"

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Even such is time which takes in trust

Our youth, our joys, and all we have,

And pays us but with age and dust

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Who in the dark and silent grave

When we have wandered all our ways

Shuts up the story of our days.

And from which earth and grave and dust

The Lord shall raise me up I trust.

- Sir Walter Ralegh -

According to the speaker, “time” not only gives him an empty promise of ever-joyous life, but also eventually drags him along to pitiless “death” who takes every thing he has from him. Firstly, from the first three lines of the poem, it can be inferred that the speaker once lived a life so youthful, pleasurable, and thriving. Never was he aware of the very fact that, as time passes by, one gets older and older and the body once vigorous turns worn-out. Fortune and fame accumulated all during one’s life can be gone merely in a night. Finally, from paragraphs 4-6, most important of all, death, absolutely inescapable and unpredictable, comes to end everybody’s life � nothing, nor even his own body, he can take with him when the time he dies.

Written in the night before his execution, this poem, of course, can be perceived as the contemplation of Sir Walter Ralegh, the poet himself, about his past life � all his best fortunes and the loss of them. Ralegh was once well known of his ambition, riches, literary and naval prowess, courtesy, courage, curiosity, and pride. Many misfortunes, however, afflicted him. For years, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London � not only once, but twice. One of his sons died while accompanying his father in a sailing adventure that was, unfortunately, at last aborted. In the end, accused of treason, he was sentenced to death. That very night, as the poem reveals, he might have regretted that he had never thought of this catastrophic end of his life before or probably felt faint with illusory life. Yet, we know for sure that, at least, he was not traumatized by the impending death since he asked to see the axe that was to behead him and said, ‘This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases’ � an apparently settled point of view. The next day, he delivered a long speech at the scaffold and faced his execution with dignity and courage.

The notion of unawareness of inevitable death can also be perceived in some other literary works. In Everyman, a medieval morality play, for example, Everyman, the main character, accumulating worldly riches and ignorant of God, is surprising visited by Death, whom he must follow to meet his Maker. Awfully scared, he asks his acquaintances, e.g. Fellowship, Kindred, Goods, and Beauty, for an accompany; but they, each of whom represents an earthly matter, refuse � except Good Deeds, who finally accompanies Everyman into the grave. The end of this allegorical play suggests that, through good deeds, one is redeemed and prepared to meet at the Last Judgment with God.

Even such is time which takes in trust

Our youth, our joys, and all we have,

The two first lines of the poem tell us that the life the speaker had spent was once vigorous, joyful, and probably prosperous. Manifestly, it also reminds us of the life of Sir Walter Ralegh himself.

Ralegh’s life was apparently full of voyages and adventures. In 1578 he sailed to America and the West Indies on a voyage of conquest and exploration led by his half-bother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Shortly after that, as an officer of the English forces, he went to Ireland and quelled a rebellion there. When Gilbert died on an expedition to Newfoundland, Ralegh continued to organise and finance exploration in North America with an aim of finding and mining gold and increasing trade. Now considered as one of Queen’s favorites, he would not be allowed to risk such hazardous voyages himself. The first trip, in 1584, was commanded by members of his own household. In 1585, he sent a party of colonists to found a settlement on the east cost of North America. They landed in North Carolina, which Lalegh later named “Virginia” in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

In 155, released from the Tower of London, he took an expedition to the Orinoco River in Guiana, now Venezuela, and tried without success to find the fabled land of “El Dorado”, the fabulous Golden City, but had to abandoned his plans later on. Finally, in 1616, Lalegh launched his last adventure. He was ordered back to Guiana on a mission for King James. On his return to England, he was imprisoned again in the tower and would stay there for good until his death. Surely, these risky and numerous adventures can be considered as evidence showing the activeness and vigor of Ralegh’s life.

Lalegh was, moreover, once undoubtedly famed and wealthy. Firstly, his exploits with Gilbert as well as his prowess as a poet enabled him to join the inner circle at Court. After having vanquished the Irish rebels, in 1581 he returned to Court with dispatches, and there immediately attracted the Queen’s attention. In addition, there is a famous event of the cloak believed to have occurred at Greenwich Palace. Ralegh, dressed very flamboyantly as usual, was walking with the queen and other courtiers. When they came to a muddy puddle, he spread out his plush velvet cloak so that the queen would not have to step in the dirt. He was consequently rewarded with “many suits”, the lease of Durham House on the Strand, and many other privileges.

Thanks to estates he received and the commercial monopolies she granted him, Ralegh soon grew very rich. Apparently interested in seamanship and navigation, with his wealth, he built a warship, the “Ark Ralegh”. He later gave it to the Queen who changed the name to the “Ark Royal” This ship became the flagship of the English fleet which fought against the Spanish Armada. Although Ralegh did not command a ship, he was renowned as a naval advisor to the Queen and helped Sir John Hawkins to implement improvements to the design of ships, an important factor in the success of the English fleet against the Spanish. Furthermore, although the colony in Virginia he had initiated eventually failed, he was given the credit for introducing both tobacco and potatoes to Britain.

Late in his life, he spent many years in the Tower of London. The imprisonment, nonetheless, was not unduly harsh. With Elizabeth Ralegh, his wife, his children, and other members of his household, he led a tolerably pleasant life. He spent much of his time pursuing experiments and composing a voluminous History of the World, the first attempt of such a work in English, which, before his death, he had managed to carry on as far as 10 BC. He, in the Tower, became a tutor to the young Prince of Wales and taught him about navigation. He also made herbal cordials, one of which cured Anne of Denmark. So far, considering the fame and fortunes he gained, it can be supposed that Ralegh had a pleasurable life.

In the second line of the poem, pleasant aspects of life are presented, i.e. liveliness and youthfulness, ‘our youth’; happiness, pleasure, and love, ‘our joys’; reputation, fortunes, and probably wealth, ‘and all we have’. However, as suggested in the first line, all of these are deceptive � ‘time’ just takes them ‘in trust’. In reality, from the third line, which gives an image contrasting sharply with that of the second line,‘ (time) pays us but with age’, as time passes by, all we get is the ever-increasing age, causing our body to weaken and deteriorate. The word ‘dust’ in line two can suggest that everything we have or try to gain does not matter at all because all of us one will for sure turn into dust, i.e. to die. In his letter to Lady Elizabeth Ralegh, his wife, written sometime during his imprisonment fifteen years earlier and which he thought was his last farewell to her, he also used the word ‘dust’ that signified death.

Secondly, I beseech you for the love you beare me living, do not hide your selfe many dayes, but by your travailes seeke to helpe your miserable fortunes and the right of your poor childe. Thy mourning cannot availe me, I am but dust.


I would not by my will present you with sorrowes. Let them go to the grave with me and be buried in the dust.

In the fifth line of the poem, ‘we have wondered all our ways’, life is compared to a journey. This somewhat religious concept can be also perceived in some other literary works, e.g. the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote it in the form of various tales told by a number of pilgrims during their pious journey to the sacred shrine in Canterbury; and Everyman, an allegorical play of which main character undertakes to see who among his acquaintances will accompany him on his most important trip � to the grave and the judgment of God Almighty. Moreover, Sir Walter Ralegh himself spent much of the time of his life taking journeys to many lands. From lines four and six, ‘who in the dark and silent grave… shuts up the story of our days’, the image of unpredictable, inevitable, and merciless death is illustrated, notably through the usage of the adjectives ‘dark’ and ‘silent’. In Ralegh’s great work in prose, History of the World, he also spoke of this facet of death.

O eloquent, just and mightie Death! Thou hast drawn together all the farstretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet (Here lies).

Obviously, the word ‘grave’ in line 5 is, like ‘dust’, metonymy of death who ends, ‘shuts up’, the time of our life, ‘the story of our days’.

In addition, it is noteworthy that from the second to the sixth lines appears a significant usage of the first-person plural pronouns and adjectives, i.e. ‘our’ and ‘we’ in line two, ‘us’ in line three, ‘we’ and ‘our’ in line five, and ‘our’ in line six. This can be perceived as an act of generalization � this universal experience happens not only to the speaker alone, but to everyone. On the other hand, in the last line, the use of ‘me’ and ‘I’ shows the speaker’s personal belief.

There seems to be a discrepancy in the accounts of Ralegh’s religious belief. First, he was born in a fervent Protestant family, and is even known to have attended church in East Budleigh. Yet, later on, he was popularly regarded as a dangerous atheist; for around him he had gathered the small group of free-thinking friends. Besides, he seems to have taken a passionate interest in astronomy and chemistry.

However, written in the night before his execution, this poem expresses his somewhat strong belief in God. According to the poem, though his journey of life is to end and all he has in this world are to be taken from him, he believes that ‘the Lord’ shall raise him up from ‘earth and grave and dust’ � his spirit will redeemed and purified, and eventually ascend to live in eternal bliss in the land of God. In his letter to his beloved wife, his true belief in God is also revealed.

The everlasting God, powerful, infinite, and omnipotent God. That Almighty God, who is goodnesse it selfe, the true life and true light keep thee and thine have mercy on me… and send us to meet in his glorious Kingdome. My deare wife farewell. Blesse my poore boy. Pray for me and let my good God hold you both in his arms.

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