Click on the names below to hear these poets read "Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son" (requires RealPlayer):

Henri Cole

David Ferry

Linda Gregerson
(For help, see a note about the audio.)

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Elizabeth Bishop, "Sonnet" (March 29, 2000)
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Read aloud by David Barber, Carolyn Kizer, and Christopher Ricks. Introduction by David Barber.

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Read aloud by Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, W. S. Merwin, and Lloyd Schwartz. Introduction by Linda Gregerson.

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Atlantic Unbound | January 30, 2002
Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son

Introduction by Linda Gregerson

iddle, says my dictionary: a dark saying. A question or enigma propounded in order that it may be guessed or answered. A piece of gamesmanship, in other words; a linguistic transaction based on provocation; a kind of intellectual dare. A riddle is thus a pastime or amusement, but even its playfulness retains a thread of darkness. Consider the riddle of the Theban sphinx: four legs, two legs, three; the riddle is crossbred with omen. The Indo-European root of the word (re) is simultaneously the root of read (or rede, to take counsel) and dread. Consider the riddle Sir Walter Ralegh addresses to his son:
Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree,
The weed is that which strings the hangman's bag,
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wilde,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray,
We part not with thee at this meeting day.

("Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son")
Sir Walter Ralegh

Sir Walter Ralegh,
in an undated engraving

During his lifetime, Sir Walter Ralegh (1552?-1618) was reckoned one of the notable poets of his age. No mean age. Spenser, Campion, Whitney, Shakespeare, Sidney, Sidney (sister to the brother), Marlowe, Lanyer, Donne, and Jonson: all were his contemporaries; all, or all the men, have prompted all-but-suffocating reverence ever since. Very little remains to help us judge the grounds of Ralegh's contemporary reputation. Like many a gentleman poet, he largely eschewed the vulgarity of print. A scattering of his poems appeared in anthologies, as fragmentary illustrations in a handbook of English poesy, or as part of the commendatory apparatus to other people's work. Chiefly they circulated in manuscript, and the great preponderance of them appear to have been lost. What survives is lushly sensuous ("Nature That Washed Her Hands in Milk") and smoothly disillusioned ("The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," "The Lie"); immaculate in its technical ease and its ability to mimic ease of soul ("The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage"); redolent of folkway, balladry, and the ceremony of two-part invention ("As You Came from the Holy Land"); drawn to the darkness and economy of riddle ("On the Cards and Dice," "Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son").

Based on the verses that have survived, Ralegh's distinguishing aptitude seems to have been for extraordinary complexity of tone produced by extraordinary, or by apparent, simplicity of means. The prosodic features of the poem "To His Son" are all but transparent, suited to a nursery tale or formulaic precept. The lines are fully rhymed and end-stopped or, in Ellen Bryant Voigt's more elegant and accurate formulation, "end-paused." Monosyllabic words predominate. The tidy packaging of homiletic form (the riddle) and poetic form (the sonnet) tidily overlap: the first quatrain proposes the riddle, the second quatrain answers it, the third quatrain explains it (the couplet is a different story, but that we shall defer). The meter is highly regular, as is the manner of nursery rhyme; the dominant iambs recruit for metrical emphasis a part of speech (the prepositional on, in, with, at) that would not in ordinary conversation lay claim to musical stress. "But on a day they meet all in one place." Short long short long short long short long short long: perfect iambic pentameter, the commonest meter in English. This phenomenon is called "forcing the meter," but the concept of "forcing" is a partial distortion; it captures the push but not the pull of powerful rhythm. Let us call it leavened, or adapted, meter rather than forced. But how is it that the artificial simplification of metrical surface can heighten rather than deaden the language? Line three, for example ("But on a day") is odd to modern ears, or would be were it not for its haunting proximity to the formulas of fairy tale: "on a day," as one might say "once upon a time."

Poetic practice and rhetorical practice were understood to be aspects of a single encompassing discipline in Ralegh's day, which is why his poems and those of his contemporaries tend to be so vividly voiced. The poem is spoken by someone and to someone; it does not drift in a vague interior space. The audience of readers is typically third party to a dramatized negotiation between poet and mistress, poet and patron, poet and "soul" or deity, poet and particularized internal auditor. This doubling of audience is supple, porous, and not to be confused with later, hardened conventions of dramatic monologue (see Browning). The riddling poem we're focused on at present gains edge and resonance from the unfolding relatedness of speaker and auditor; indeed, that unfolding relatedness may be said to be the poem's real subject. But we do not know at once, perhaps not even in the end, exactly what that relationship is. The title does not appear in all transcriptions; it may be the surmise of later copyists. Even if we take it to be authorial, we must move through several lines of progressive inference before we can confidently propose a "fit" between the title and the body of the poem.

What we hear at the outset is distance: a puzzle proposed by one who knows the answer to one who does not know, a rhetorical structure of asymmetrical authority. The riddler's inherent authority is augmented by the potent formulas of number and alliteration: two-beat metrical units, two- and four-line units of rhyme, "three things" so conspicuously aligned (wood, weed, wag) as to bear the force of omen. Progressively unspooling its dark prefiguration, the poem simultaneously reveals an intimate connection between speaker and internal auditor. The riddle is all third person to begin with, its pronouns non-committal ("they"), its nouns near-ciphers ("things"). Line by line, these "things" assume the materiality of vegetable and animal life (wood, weed, wag) and then the wrought momentum of dramatic scene (a gallows, a noose, a he-who-is-hanged). (A fourth thing, "bag," or hangman's hood, assumes its eerie prominence by force of rhyme and intimation: covering the head of the condemned man on the scaffold, the "bag" consigns him to darkness and anonymity, thus mimicking the blinkered ignorance induced by riddle.) Third person gives way to first ("my") and second ("thee"). Thee, the second-person familiar, is "dear" and young (a "boy"), familiar enough to be teased ("my pretty wag," as one might say, "my sweet-faced mischievous fellow"). So the two, the speaker and the listener, are at once distinguished, by age and understanding, and yoked, by affection and mutual entanglement in fate.

The affection, in context, is disturbing. What is the answer to the riddle? Death. And whose death? Yours. It tolls for thee. Who tells me so? One who is close and ought to protect you. Why frighten a child with news like this? The darker predictions of homily and nursery tale are sometimes thought to have disciplinary or didactic force; they may tether the child to virtue. But what can virtue do when punishment is certain? The "meeting" destined to "choke the child" (a sinister piece of onomatopoetic alliteration if ever there was one) seems not to be conditional ("if") but inevitable ("when"). Perhaps the fear has something to do with pleasure? The manipulated tension between fear-of-knowing and eagerness-to-know propels a great variety of story-bearing genres. But whose is the pleasure here? Child's? Adult's? And at what point does the pleasure fail to sustain the conceit? For the poem breaks faith with its own incantatory premise. It turns on itself; it does not like what it has seen; it tries to wrest an exemption from the future it has summoned. It abandons the language of riddle and spell for the language of prayer, the language of wishing-against-all-odds.

Elsewhere on the Web:

"Sir Walter Ralegh's Treason: A Prosecution Document" (The English Historical Review, September, 1995)
An examination of the government's case against Sir Walter Ralegh when he was convicted of treason in 1603. By Mark Nicholls
alegh's own endgame worked something like a riddle itself, or like the labors put to heroes in quest romance. Outmaneuvered by rivals and condemned for treason in 1603, he spent the next thirteen years of his life in the Tower of London under sentence of death. In 1616, he persuaded King James to grant him a final high-stakes bid for pardon and for New World wealth: he would sail to Guiana, secure a gold mine he had never seen but swore to believe in, load his ships with ore, and deliver this treasure in triumph to the English King, all without offense to the Spanish, who claimed Guiana for their own. The voyage was a spectacular failure: ten of fourteen ships were lost; a key Spanish settlement sacked and burnt; large numbers of English killed, including Ralegh's elder son; no treasure whatsoever secured. James had promised the Spanish that Ralegh should "be hanged" if he wilfully broke the peace between England and Spain but, with Ralegh again in custody, was informed by his counselors that a man under sentence of death could not legally be tried for new offenses. So Elizabeth's sometime favorite, warden of her stanneries (or mines), recipient of forty thousand acres of Irish land, lord lieutenant of Cornwall, governor of Jersey, vice-admiral of Cornwall and Devon, captain of the Queen's guard, and, not so incidentally, her frequent military champion and backstairs plotter against the enemy Spanish, was, in order to placate the Spanish, executed by order of the Queen's sovereign heir on a fifteen-year-old treason charge, a charge that included conspiring with the Spanish against the English crown. The traitor was not hanged but beheaded, a prerogative of rank.

Ralegh writes a riddle on the brink of an abyss. Since the man also lived his life on the brink of abyss, or multiple abysses (the years of imprisonment under James were if anything more placid than the earlier phases of his career), one is tempted to read the gallows at the heart of his riddle as a figure for dangers the man knew something about. We cannot assign a date to the poem, though most assume it was written sometime after the birth of his first son, in 1593, and well before the final venture to Guiana; we cannot be sure which son it has in mind, if indeed it is addressed to a son; the poem in any case disdains mere topicality. But this far the life is pertinent to the poem: their shared foundation is political. Ralegh's talent, his instinct and intelligence, took light from the perilous intersection of private and public affairs in early modern England. That intersection is quite simply all we know of him, all that is visible in the fractured but extensive remains of his actions and his pen. It is not death alone that is cast as inevitable in the riddle spoken "to his son," nor even death-by-violence: it is death-by-state-violence. Where does one turn when the consolidated powers the self has played to, pitched its measure to, exploited and served, turn cold? In another surviving version of the poem, the sudden appeal to an alternate power shatters poetic form; three quatrains that culminate in "chokes the child" are followed by a single half-line: "God bless the child."

Four manuscript versions of the poem survive, all posthumous. One is a twelve-line poem. Two are twelve-and-a-half, as above. The fourth, a sonnet, and favored if only for that reason by most modern editors, is the version we have chiefly been discussing. In this version, the final couplet retains the petitionary force of that shorter half-line utterance ("God bless the child") but maintains the ceremony, the social contract, of meter and line length and sonnet form. The speaker calls down blessing, counsels wariness, and leads collective ("let us") prayer. "Beware" is all but nonsense in the light of inexorable prophecy (beware of what? to what end?), but it mimics the consolatory formulas of precept and cautionary tale, which posit an elder whose wisdom can help. But note the new layer of underwriting: "meeting day," the dreaded conjunction with death, has acquired another resonance. In the formulas of faith, the meeting of consequence is no mere matter of hangman's tools, whatever these bode for bodily health. It is rather the meeting of Soul and Maker, a source of hope as well as dread. In life, Ralegh sometimes played more hands than he was capable of sustaining; his faith was thought to be doubtful; his hedged bets had a way of going smash. In the sonnet whose crux is death-by-hanging, the precarious balance of worldliness and other-worldly bailout will seem to some readers to be too clever by half. This is the shadow that gives the poem its particular chill, gives the public bravado of a privately vested we its danger and its tender, tensile strength.

Click on the names below to hear these poets read
"Sir Walter Ralegh to His Son" (in RealAudio):

Henri Cole David Ferry Linda Gregerson

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Henri Cole is the author of several books of poems, including The Visible Man (2000) and The Look of Things (1996). He is currently poet-in-residence at Smith College.

David Ferry's books of poetry and translation include Of No Country I Know: Selected Poems and Translations (1999), Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse (1993), The Odes of Horace (1998), and The Epistles of Horace (2001).

Linda Gregerson teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic (1995), Negative Capability: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry (2001), and the poetry collections Fire in the Conservatory (1982), The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996) and Waterborne, which will be published this spring.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.