Sir Walter Ralegh's longest, most complex, and probably
unfinished poem "The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia," has long served as a riddle for interpreters. While
scholars have disagreed on almost all aspects related to the poem, from
title and date to whether the poem is genuinely unfinished or intentionally
unpolished, whether it is Ralegh's masterpiece or a clear-cut failure, "Ocean
to Scinthia" is usually treated in isolation from Ralegh's earlier
poetry. This article will show that while there are structural and thematic
differences between the poetry written in Ralegh's days of courtly favor
and the poem recording his downfall, "Ocean to Scinthia" expresses
qualities characteristic of Ralegh's writing throughout. Foremost among
these is a strong impulse of self-assertion, and a concomitant, growing
anxiety regarding the true efficacy of language as the tool for such assertion.
In "Ocean to Scinthia," this anxiety, reaching its climax, resolves
itself in the idea of writing as "labour," involving the implicit
rejection of the sprezzatura which had characterized Ralegh the courtier,
and asserting the existence of a different, internally rather than externally-focused
In order to fully appreciate the closeness of language
and selfhood in Ralegh's poetry, an awareness of the strong link between
the two in sixteenth century England in general is necessary. Most scholars
have agreed that a central characteristic of the period was, in Helen Wilcox's
words, "a heightened consciousness of individual identity" (155),
an identity "fashioned rather than born," as Erasmus reputedly
put it (Greene, 249). In recent decades critics have argued for the complete
dependence of this fashioning on the semiotic matrix provided by specific
social, religious, political and sexual circumstances, a matrix which subjected
the individual and yet allowed him a measure of freedom in manipulating
the pre-ordained codes for his own self-enhancement. Thinkers in the
English Renaissance itself corroborate this position, presenting "person-hood"
as the product of social norms and constraints, in Lancelot Andrewes' words:
"all by-respects that do personate, attire, or mask any, to make him
personable" (Works, 3:330). For William Perkins, "thou
art a person in respect of another. Thou art husband, father, mother. .
.and thou must do according to thine office" (Work, 382); for Hobbes, "a
Person is the same that an Actor is, both on the Stage and
in common Conversation" (Leviathan, 1.16.217).
Personal identity, in other words, is achieved by inheriting or adopting
a social role and fitting one's language to its circumstances. Protestant
writers like Andrewes and Perkins, despite their differences, agree that
beneath the mask lies a passive, spiritual self under Christ, isolated from
the secular world (Shuger, 93-105); for Hobbes, the mask hides only unformed
and dangerous desire (Greenblatt, 222).
The Renaissance courtier, formed through the performance
and manipulation of social discourse, naturally found poetry an efficient
tool. Petrarch's view that "of all earthly delights none. . .[but]
literature. . .so readily endows its practitioners with a splendid cloak
for every circumstance" (Bishop, 302) found ready ears, and is the
underlying theme of George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie. In
a world in which the mask fuses with the face, a "splendid cloak"
of poetry clearly signals a splendid courtly self. According to the Arte,
literary style, "a certaine contriued forme and qualitie. . .many times
[the writer's] peculier by election and arte," is nevertheless "the
image of man. . .for man is but his minde, and as his minde is tempered
and qualified, so are his speeches and language at large, and his inward
conceits be the metall of his minde, and his manner of vtterance the very
warp and woofe of his conceits" (148).
Here "inward conceit" and "utterance,"
thought and expression, res and verba, are of the same cloth.
A changed style indicates a changed nature, and therefore Puttenham's promise
of raising his poet-reader "first from the carte to the schoole, and
from thence to the Court, and preferr[ing] him to your Maiesties seruice.
. .being now. . .become a Courtier" (298-9) is the promise of remaking
identity. In other words, despite the emphasis on dissembling in Puttenham,
language is, paradoxically, still to be trusted: while the courtier dissembles,
he becomes that which he dissembles; while he adopts a flattering Petrarchan
style to gain advancement, he internalizes that style. In the process, the
courtier turns into a true servant of the queen's majesty, the very "metal
of his mind" re-formed by the literary conceits addressed to her.
The elaborate writing style advocated by Puttenham is, significantly, preoccupied
with order, structure, and boundaries, as these are necessary for the fashioning
of the courtly self. Samuel Daniel's
Defence of Ryme (1603) expresses a similar preoccupation, advocating
rhyme as part of the strict restrictions which poetry should impose on the
chaotic emotion lurking beneath the mask:
For the body of our imagination being as an unformed Chaos
without fashion, without day, if by the divine power of the spirit it be
wrought into an Orbe of order and forme, is it not more pleasing to Nature,
that desires a certaintie and comports not with that which is infinite,
to have these clozes, rather than not to know where to end, or how farre
to goe, especially seeing our passions are often without measure (138).
The poet is here given a high, almost divine role,
probably influenced by popularized Neoplatonism. However, what is God-like
about the poet in Daniel is not, as in Plato's Ion, the poet's prophetic
inspiration, but rather the poet's ability to master and control self-defining
language, and thus impose form and closure on chaos.
This belief in the power of poetry to create, express,
and control identity is rooted in a wider philosophical tradition which
closely linked res - both things in the world and concepts in the
mind - and verba.
However, recent studies have also pointed to strains of anxiety within this
seemingly assured tradition, to the "increasingly fragile and brittle"
nature of "epistemological, linguistic, and poetic mirrors" as
the Renaissance proceeds. Katherine Maus, for example, has shown that the
English Renaissance search for truth-revealing verbal techniques was always
coupled with a mistrust of language as such (1-34). As I shall show, this
mistrust seems, in "Ocean to Scinthia" in particular, to be closely
linked to an admission of hidden, unruly passions, the passions which Hobbes
and Daniel point to. In his shorter, more controlled pieces, Ralegh could
appeal to the "durable fire" of love and its clear-cut linguistic
expression as the bedrock of his identity. However in "Ocean to Scinthia,"
an inner reality of "whole seas of woe" is expressed by a flood
of seemingly unending, uncontrolled verbiage, punctuated by self-reflexive
expressions of linguistic doubt. And yet, as I shall show, it is the formlessness
itself of the resulting poem which makes its expression of passionate "woe"
While poetry's central role within the Elizabethan
court made every courtly poem an instance of social self-assertion, Ralegh's
biographical circumstances lent his poetic efforts particular urgency. Ralegh
was regarded in his own day as the most dazzling and accomplished of individuals,
yet coming from a relatively undistinguished family, his position was based
entirely on his relationship with the Queen. "Sir Walter Ralegh"
was to all intents and purposes born in 1581, upon his arrival at Court
with dispatches from Ireland, when he made an immediate impression on Elizabeth,
whose ear, according to the Fragmenta Regalia, "he got in a
trice. . .she began to be taken with his elocution, and loved to hear his
reasons to her demands" (Thompson, 21).
For the next ten years this verbal facility, this masterful courtship of
the greatest Petrarchan mistress, made Ralegh the reigning favorite, the
recipient of honors, monopolies and estates. However, Ralegh never developed
a power-base of his own, and even at the height of his glory, his haughty,
"Damnable proud" demeanor coupled with his non-aristocratic background
kept him to some extent an outsider, a fact which explains Ralegh's total
isolation following his banishment to the Tower.
Ralegh's dazzling career "both enacted a common
fantasy and violated a social norm," as Tennenhouse puts it (236),
making Ralegh both the epitome of Elizabethan courtiership and unique in
the extent of his self-creation. Interestingly, George Puttenham seems to
have been sensitive to the double nature of Ralegh's poetry, at once communal
and unique, as he first mentions it in the Arte as part of the poetry
of the "crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen..who haue written
excellently well," and then on its own: "For dittie and amourous
Ode I finde Sir Walter Rawleyghs vayne most loftie, insolent,
and passionate" (61, 63). In his courtly poetry, Ralegh indeed manages
to convey his individual brilliance by exhibiting his mastery of the Petrarchan
codes while admitting his subjection to them, and by implicitly stressing
the place of the writer within his socially-regulated poem. At the same
time, this self-assertion is always accompanied by anxious undertones, creating
a fragile balance which becomes most precarious in "Ocean to Scinthia".
In his early poetry, written as part of the effort
to consolidate his position at court, Ralegh grounds his identity in Elizabeth's
life-giving and identity-conferring love. The tightly-knit structures of
the poems of this period contribute to the effect of a stable authorial
self, speaking with assurance from within and for an ordered, Queen-centered
world. Yet even in the early poems, the effort is subtly undermined by an
implicit questioning of the reliability of the Queen, the great social and
sexual Other, in her prescribed role as fully-present and wholly-responsive
audience of Ralegh's loving words. Anxiety at such moments causes Ralegh's
poetic spotlight to move from the external to the internal, from Elizabeth
to inner constancy. The move does not lessen the anxiety, however, as it
is always accompanied by a self-reflexive unease as to the ability of language
to express inner truth.
A good example of the type of poem written by Ralegh in his days of power
is the stately and assured "Diana." The opening lines set the tone:
Praisd be Dianas faire and harmles light,
Praisd be the dewes, wherwith she moists the ground;
Praisd be hir beams, the glorie of the night,
Praisd be hir powre, by which all powres abound.
Praisd be hir Nimphs, with whom she decks the woods,
Praisd be hir knights, in whom true honor liues,
Praisd be that force, by which she moues the floods,
Let that Diana shine, which all these giues. . .. (ll.1-8)
Ralegh's poem depicts Elizabeth's goddess-like stature and the correspondingly
exalted stature of her retinue. "Diana" presents the Elizabethan
court as a timeless, serene, perfect world, complete and self-enclosed. It
is fittingly portrayed in slow and stately rhythms, no tension ruffling the
calm assurance of meter and rhyme. Elizabeth is the creator, the mover and
the aesthetic and moral center of this world, and the poem uses the specular
language of "light," "beams" and "perfect image[s]"
(l.16) to describe what is a fantasy of full imaginary identification, achieved
through poetry, of the courtier with her.
A close look at the syntax of the first two stanzas
reveals, however, that despite the identificatory language of the poem,
its focus is not on the queen per se. The ultimate purpose of the
poem is not to list the queen's virtues but to praise them; the exhortation
in the opening "Praisd be" is further emphasized by insistent
anaphora and repeated trochees in the first seven lines. The syntax of the
first half of the poem creates a double image for the speaker, the praiser.
On the one hand, the impersonal structure, the lack of agency, denies him
all individuality; his voice anonymously represents a nameless community,
the community which the poem also describes. On the other hand, despite
her glory, the Queen is the passive object of the speaker's powerful praise;
his foregrounded act of epideixis is what brings to light Elizabeth's greatness,
is what performs it - in a deliberately artificial, literary manner - for
the listener or reader. The anonymous yet commanding voice of the David-like
poet then reappears and neatly concludes the poem with its final hortative:
"With Circes let them dwell that thinke not so."
"Diana" presents, in other words, an image
of the courtly world as a perfect, self-contained community with the queen
as its living heart, and at the same time fashions its implied speaker,
the courtier-poet, as the one enabling this community. The poet creates
himself as "knight," glamorous and powerful though indistinguishable
as an individual from his equally-glamorous fellows. The only hint of anxiety,
slightly undoing the serene decorum of the epideixis, can be detected in
the closing line with its first and last suggestion of the possibility of
disbelief, of doubt, of thinking "not so." Tellingly, it takes
the form of an attack on a female Other - "Circes" - dwelling,
as it were, on the dark side of Diana's moon. This suggests that the unease
stems from the Queen's gender, from the Elizabethan reality of male dependence
upon a superior female, a reality against which the constant emphasis upon
the performative power of the poet can be seen as directed.
In "Diana" words seem to transparently
convey sense. The appellation "Diana" itself is an instance of
inspired naming which conveys the truth of its object - Elizabeth - within
itself, in implications of dominion, bravery, virginity, and the moon as
both changing and constant, with a mysterious power over the "floods"
of English nationhood, and implicitly over Ralegh himself, nicknamed "Water"
by Elizabeth (Litt, 319). However in other, more intimate poems, Ralegh
addresses with more anxiety the question of words' efficacy in conveying
meaning. A striking example is the poem "Sir Walter Ralegh to the Qveen,"
which seems to argue for the truth of a silent interiority while in fact
proving the inseparability of the psychic from the verbalized in the courtly
milieu which makes the courtier. The opening lines introduce the water imagery
which will be a central motif of "Ocean to Scinthia", and
present a Hamlet-like rejection of outward signification:
Our Passions are most like to Floods and streames; The shallow Murmure; but the Deep are Dumb.
So when Affections yeeld Discourse, it seems
The bottom is but shallow whence they come.
They that are Rich in Words must needs discouer
That they are Poore in that which makes a Louer. (ll.1-6)
The "dumb" speaker "sues for no Compassion"
(l.10) because overcome by "Despaire," (l.22) but this despair
suddenly turns into "Discretion" in the fourth stanza:
Thus those desires that aime too high, For any mortall Louer, When Reason cannot make them dye, Discretion will them Couer. Yet when discretion dothe bereaue The Plaints that they should vtter, Then your discretion may perceiue. That Silence is a Suitor. (ll.23-30)
The gap the poem claims exists between
res and verbum, emotion and word, the self and its expression,
is bridged by their common root in the community and its norms of
"discretion." Here, discretion silences and discretion reveals,
and Ralegh and Elizabeth's shared possession of it puts both in a
privileged position and seems to make possible the impossible, paradoxical
situation in which "Silence is a Suitor." At the same time,
this claim is negated by the existence of the witty poem itself. Thus,
the poem actually shows that in the courtly community silence is inconceivable.
The system of sexual politics within which "To the Qveen"
is written demands the constant verbalization of feelings and suits;
this cannot be otherwise in a society which attempts to collapse the
distinction between the inner and the outer, the emotional and the
political, "su[ing] for compassion" and vying for political
advantage (Tennenhouse, 238.) The final portrayal of language in general
and courtly poetry in particular in the poem is thus an ambivalent
one. Poetry is pictured as shallow and deceiving as regards the writer's
innermost "dumb" emotions, yet it is also, as the existence
of the poem confirms, absolutely necessary to the creation of the
writer as a loving "suitor" - the very word implying speech
- an identity which only comes into being when society, headed by
the queen, recognizes the speaker as one.
Even in these relatively self-assured poems Ralegh
is never totally free of unease as to the true strength and stability of
the queen's favor. Other poems, most notably "Like to a Hermite poore"
and "Farewell to the Covrt," paint a more explicitly negative
picture of desolation and exile - the courtier's ultimate evil - although
their graceful style counteracts their woeful tone and mark them as, at
most, moments of anxiety expressed in relative security. Around 1587, however,
Elizabeth's growing partiality for Essex, partly sincere but also an example
of the balance of favorites and factions which she always sought to maintain, formed a new threat to Ralegh's position and induced
him to write the bitter complaint "Fortune hath taken thee away, my
Love" (May, 119.) This poem clearly
expresses what was to become the main theme of "Ocean to Scinthia,"
the proclaimed turning away from wooing Elizabeth towards an existence which,
though based on love for the queen, is at the same time wholly self-centered.
The poem as a whole is instructive:
Fortune hath taken thee away, my Love,
My live's Joy and my sowle's heaven above; Fortune hath taken thee away my princess,
My world's delight and my true fancie's mistris.
Fortune hath taken all away from me,
Fortune hath taken all by takinge thee; Ded to all Joyes, I onlie Live to woe, So Fortune now becomes my fancie's foe.
In vaine mine eyes, in vaine you wast your tears, In vaine my sighes, the smokes of my despairs, In vaine you serch the earth and heavens above, In vaine you serch, for fortune keepes my love.
Then will I leave my Love in fortune's hands,
Then will I leave my love in worthlesse bands,
And onlie love the sorrowe Due to me,
Sorrowe hencefourth that shall my princess bee.
And onlie Joy that fortune conquers kings,
Fortune that rules on earth and earthlie things
Hath ta'ne my Love in spite of vertue's might,
So blind a goddesse did never vertue right.
With wisdome's eyes had but blind fortune seen,
Then had my love my love for ever bin;
But Love farewell, though fortune conquer thee,
No fortune base shall ever alter me.
"Fortune hath taken thee away, my love"
is clearly a product of the "salutary anxiety" which Elizabeth
sought to awaken within her subjects as an excellent means of ensuring
their dependency and love. Used on the proud
and sensitive Ralegh, however, it elicits a definite, if subtle, subversion.
The guilty party in Ralegh's poem is of course not Elizabeth but "Fortune,"
who might possibly stand for Essex (Tennenhouse, 240), but who is also
definitely the erratic goddess Fortuna, yet another of Ralegh's malignant
female aliens. Here, she not only complements but fully controls the queen,
who is thus totally disempowered by Ralegh's very act of exoneration. It is against this
image of malevolent femaleness that Ralegh, again, defines himself. Faced
with Elizabeth's absence - an absence reiterated by four repetitions of
the Queen's being "taken away" and by the visionary motifs of
the blindness of fortune and the futilely searching eyes - Ralegh declares
himself eternally loving, yet intending to "onlie love the sorrowe
Due to me / Sorrowe hencefourth that shall my princess bee." This
shift echoes the refrain of "Farewell to the Covrt": "Of
all which past, the sorow onely staies," yet in "Fortune hath
taken thee away" sorrow becomes the clearly defined object of love,
not in addition to but instead of the queen herself, who is left
at the mercy of "fortune's hands."
Ralegh's declared change in self-perception should
not blind us to the fact that the poem was written as an apparently successful
complaint to the queen, and that it presents, together with its companion
reply poem by Elizabeth, an exemplary case of the use of poetry in the practice
of courtly power negotiations. The elegant style, which led Puttenham to
quote the third stanza as an outstanding instance of anaphora and two lines
from stanza six as exemplifying "Epizeuxis, the vnderlay,
or Coocko-spel" (198, 201). likewise indicates that emotion is here
still masterfully "wrought into an Orbe of order and forme," to
quote Daniel. Nevertheless, the woeful self-centeredness upon which the
poem insists should also not be ignored. For, though its use in "Fortune
hath taken thee away" may be wholly "utilitarian," it is a central,
defining feature of Ralegh's poetry, subdued in the early celebratory poems
but emerging powerfully when external address proves "vain."
External address did indeed prove vain for Ralegh
when in 1592, at the height of his political, social and economic success,
Queen Elizabeth discovered Ralegh's secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton,
a Lady of the Privy Chamber, and consequently had him imprisoned in the
Tower. Most scholars agree that it was at this time and place that "Ocean
to Scinthia" was composed (Campbell, 237.) Ralegh's marriage could
only be considered a heinous betrayal in a social system based so fully
upon the myth of mistress and enamored suitors, and therefore it thoroughly
destroyed the basis for Ralegh's position as the queen's favorite courtier.
Paradoxically, this betrayal of the Petrarchan myth made Ralegh's oft-used
Petrarchan conceits suddenly come horribly true: Ralegh indeed found himself
alone, despairing, banished by his cruel mistress and in real fear of death
- if not literal (the queen was not known to actually execute courtiers
guilty of marriage) then certainly the "death" of Ralegh's carefully-constructed
identity. At the same time, Ralegh's disloyalty to the world of Petrarchan
love denied him all possibility of continuing to influence that world through
Petrarchan sonneteering. Abandoned by his audience, his epideictic poetry
ending with the end of dialogue, Ralegh faced a world of paralyzing solitude.
"Ocean to Scinthia" expresses the anguished confrontation with
this new reality, one in which the ability of poetry to both mirror and
affect reality, and create within it a space of authority and relative autonomy
for the poet-courtier seems to have disappeared.
Critics have read this tantalizing, enigmatic poem
in widely divergent ways, dividing primarily into those who view it as another
masterful complaint, and those who pronounce it a failure. Marion Campbell
belongs to the latter group, claiming, in the most recent major article
devoted to "Ocean to Scinthia", that the poem "demonstrates
the ego's incapacity to fashion itself inside poetic discourse without social
sanction. . . The poetry remains inert because it is ineffectual" (248-9).
While Campbell's perception of the disintegration of Ralegh's courtly identity
is astute, a careful reading proves that the fact that it was socially "ineffectual"
does by no means make "Ocean to Scinthia" "inert." Rather,
the poem records Ralegh's attempt to cancel out the political res now
irreparably severed from his courtly verba and totally beyond his
control, and to focus exclusively on the res of inner emotion - eternal
love for the Queen - asserting its position as the sole core of his being
and positing for it the verba of the heart.
Manifestly created by and for the self, the rhetoric
foregrounded in "Ocean to Scinthia" claims to be, in effect, un-rhetorical:
private, plain, neither seeking to persuade another nor to ornament itself
with stylistic jewels. Yet un-rhetorical rhetoric is, as the poem proves,
impossible. As "passion" breaks through the erstwhile barriers
of courtly self and courtly verse, the attempt at "simple words"
is all but swamped in a flood of Petrarchan, pastoral, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian,
aphoristic, humoral and mercantile imagery, all grasping at the new, unspeakable
"essence" of Ralegh's love while betraying an unquenchable longing
for the old dispensation. The chaotic imagery, coupled with the often indefinite
syntax, repeated ellipses, and the irregularity of meter, rhyme and stanza
length create the overall effect of incompleteness and thematic obscurity
in the poem; yet its unique harshness of tone, unremitting self-absorption
and repeated foregrounding of the laboriousness of poetic expression actually
give its speaker a more individualistic and self-conscious voice, making
it the most memorable of Ralegh's poems.
Ralegh begins "Ocean to Scinthia," somewhat
surprisingly, not with the "complaint" but with the problem of
language, earlier addressed in "To the Queen" and now again foregrounded
as both paralyzing and urging the poetry on:
Sufficeth it to yow, my ioys interred In simpell wordes that I my woes cumplayne, Yow that then died when first my fancy erred, Ioys vnder dust that never live agayne.
If to the liuinge weare my muse adressed, Or did my minde her own spirrit still inhold, Weare not my livinge passion so repressed, As to the dead, the dead did thes vnfold,
Sume sweeter wordes, sume more becumming vers,
Should witness my myshapp in hygher kynd; But my loues wounds, my fancy in the hearse, The Idea but restinge, of a wasted mind,
The blossumes fallen, the sapp gon from the tree,
The broken monuments of my great desires, From thes so lost what may th'affections bee,
What heat in Cynders of extinguisht fiers? (ll.1-16)
The "sweeter wordes" and "more becumming vers" that
Ralegh is accustomed to are not fit to describe his great predicament. Another
language, "simpell wordes," must be found. Yet found for what
purpose, if all that is left is an extinguished fire? A second look suggests
that the opening lines, even as they proclaim devastation, already suggest
that the devastated self can look in another direction for re-establishment
and expression. Despite the title "Ocean to Scinthia," Ralegh
turns in the opening line not to the queen but to his own "ioyes interred." He then claims
in line 12 that his "Idea" - the preconception guiding his poem,
and perhaps his life - is the "resting" of the mind,
an image of internal stability, albeit one devoid of positive content, an
image to which he will return at the end of the poem.
Notwithstanding the proclaimed transition to "simpell
words," Ralegh then proceeds to describe his plight in pastoral,
one of the courtliest of languages, signaling the first of the countless
stylistic fluctuations in the poem:
From frutful trees I gather withred leues
And glean the broken eares with misers hands,
Who sumetyme did inioy the waighty sheves
I seeke fair flours amidd the brinish sand.
All in the shade, yeven in the faire soon dayes
Vnder thos healthless trees I sytt alone,
Wher ioyfull byrdds singe neather lovely layes
Nor Phillomen recounts her direfull mone.
No feedinge flockes, no sheapherds cumpunye,
That might renew my dollorus consayte,
. . .
But all onn yearth as from the colde stormes bendinge
Shrinck from my thoughts in hygh heauens and below. (ll.21-36)
The isolation from society is clearly what leads to the predicament of language.
Courtly "sheapherds cumpunye" is indispensable for the composition
of Ralegh's "lovely layes" and "direfull mone[s]" - interestingly,
both epideixis and complaint are here treated, and eschewed, equally. Yet
the passage also proves that Ralegh still manages to use the "sweeter
wordes" of traditionally polysemic pastoral to effectively express a
multifaceted plight. From the very beginning Ralegh links his inner state
to his social one, as can be seen by the interchangeable: "If to the
liuinge weare my muse adressed, / Or did my minde her own spirrit still inhold."
Here, politically and socially banished, Ralegh's mind becomes isolated
and wasted: "But all onn yearth as from the colde stormes bendinge /
Shrinck from my thoughts in hygh heauens and below" (l.477). The pastoral
image: "From frutful trees I gather withred leues /. . . / Who sumetyme
did inioy the waighty sheves / I seeke fair flours amidd the brinish sand"
thus can, and probably does refer to social exclusion, lack of economic recompense,
mental exhaustion and the poor quality of the resulting poem all in one -
since these different fields are indeed one for the courtier. At the same
time, pastoral supplies the speaker's identity here with some stability, by
associating him with the long line of lonesome, lovesick shepherds in the
tradition of Sannazaro's Sincero and Spenser's January Colin, who use
the bleak landscape of a dark pastoral as a linguistic mirror for the melancholic
A few stanzas later come the next reflexive references to the work of writing
in the poem, now foregrounding its link with fading light:
So my forsaken heart, my withered mind,
Widow of all the joys it once possessed
. . .
Alone, forsaken, frindless onn the shore
With many wounds, with deaths cold pangs inebrased,
Writes in the dust as onn that could no more
Whom love, and tyme, and fortune had defaced,
Of things so great, so longe, so manefolde
With meanes so weake, the sowle yeven then departing
The weale, the wo, the passages of olde
And worlds of thoughts discribed by onn last sythinge:
As if when after Phebus is dessended
And leves a light mich like the past dayes dawninge,
And, every toyle and labor wholy ended,
Each livinge creature draweth to his restinge
Wee should beginn by such a partinge light
To write the story of all ages past
And end the same before th'approchinge night.
Such is agayne the labor of my minde
Whose shroude by sorrow woven now to end
Hath seene that ever shininge soon declynde
So many yeares that so could not dissende (ll.85-107)
Throughout the poem, as in Ralegh's earlier poems such as "Diana,"
Elizabeth's associations with light, sight, the sun and the moon are stressed.
Ralegh's days as favored courtier are described as a time in which "the
eyes of my minde helde her beames" (l.108), "such force her angellike
appearance had" (l.112), "My darkest wayes her eyes make cleare
as day" (l.117) and so on. The poetry of that period had been a pure
reflection of this joyous presence: "Out of her eyes (the store of ioys)
[my Muse] did chuse / Equall delights, my sorrowes counterpoysinge" (ll.47-8).
This state of Petrarchan bliss, drawing upon a fantasy of plenitude and identification,
ends with the setting of the sun and the concurrent "defac[ing]"
of Ralegh - literally de-faced, in the sense of losing social identity, the
face he had presented to the world. Coming fast upon the heels of stanzas
of pastoral imagery, the image of the setting sun also brings to mind the
closing lines of a pastoral eclogue, the sunset which traditionally ends each
And yet within this unstable, fleeting, peripheral period of time, Ralegh
places a new kind of composition, one created in the margins of social and
poetic culture, out of that which has been left to the "withered mind"
at the end of its day - its "worlds of thoughts." Ralegh's first
image of this state is of writing "in the dust," short-lived and
meaningless. His second - writing the history of the world in one short twilight
- though grander, and strangely foreshadowing Ralegh's future experiences
under another, equally unresponsive monarch, expresses here as great a futility.
The final image is, however, subtly different. As is perhaps fitting for one
who had been famous, and notorious, for his extravagant dress, Ralegh uses
the well-worn metaphor of rhetoric as the garment of thought to describe his
present writing as a labor of "shroud-weaving." It is a self-generated
and self-addressed labor, the mind using its own sorrow to weave itself a
last rhetorical piece of clothing, a plain, unpretentious garment, woven solely
for final use by its own - and only its own - creator. As a shroud, it implies
a lack of interest in its impression on others or in its own beauty, and as
such is, in effect, un-rhetorical. True, this labor can only be performed
in the light of Elizabeth's last rays, it still needs her external inspiration;
moreover, as a shroud, this language points to an ending rather than to a
brave new beginning (though Ralegh might be suggesting otherwise when he describes
Phoebus' descent as leaving "a light much like the past day's dawning.")
Nevertheless, the image of poetry as a shroud remains a powerful symbol of
a different, more independent labor for a different, more independent self,
a self that survives - even if not for long - the decline of what it had considered
an "ever shininge soonn."
The definition of writing as "labor" is also significant: serving
as part of the imagery of struggle and hardship in the poem, it also lifts
up the curtain of sprezzatura, as it were, to reveal the writer hard
at work. This exposure suggests what is for Ralegh a new insistence on his
ownership of his poetry as product of his own toil. Foucault has famously
noted that "the coming into being of the notion of 'author' constitutes
the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas"
("What is an Author?" 141). Robert Weimann has written of the development
of this notion in early modern prose narratives, noting that "the sense
of ownership affects the self-referential quality of the author's language.
The ties between product and producer. . .become so close and so personal
that the process of appropriation is sanctioned by metaphors of procreation.
. .the book. . .directly result[s] from the author's own invention and labor.
. .the process of bringing forth one's own" (479). Elizabethan courtly
poetry, on the whole, was anonymous and rarely published, adhering to an earlier
conception of writing as communal praise. Ralegh's growing "appropriation"
of his writing as "labor" as he is separated from the court - here
a labor imagined in artisan terms (weaving) rather than through the more common
metaphor of the "labor" of bringing forth a child - can thus be
seen as part of his increasing individualization. The unprecedented lack of
gracefulness, as well as the admission of "labor" in itself exposes
Ralegh's loss of courtly poise, yet the new verba of simplicity and
effort are the clothing that suits Ralegh's new inward-looking self, just
as the old had, in his "Diana" days, fitted his courtly suit.
Nonetheless, immediately following the "shroud" stanza, Ralegh
irresistibly reverts to a Petrarchan yearning for his mistress, back to courtly
tropes, again turning outwards for recognition and love:
But that the eyes of my minde helde her beames
In every part transfered by loues swift thought;
Farr off or nire, in wakinge or in dreames,
Imagination stronge their lustre brought. (ll.108-11)
and so on. This is also a return to Ralegh's courtly self, the self whose
potent "minde" and "imagination" bring out the lustre
of the queen's beams. The sudden switch to a former language and a former
identity is another manifestation of the immense struggle between the old
and the new which takes place in the poem, and yet these stanzas keep to the
past tense, and culminate in the startling summary: "of all which past
the sorrow only stayes. / So wrate I once and my mishapp fortolde" (ll.123-24).
In this startling allusion to his earlier poem "Farewell to the Court,"
quotation may indeed be "annexed into the rhetoric of fragmentation"
as Campbell puts it (241), yet the reference to earlier composition also asserts
Ralegh's poetic authority - his words of woe had foretold, had fore-known
the Queen's betrayal, and had pointed to the one enduring truth of the heart
- sorrow - which the present writing now affirms.
In the stanzas that follow, the ideas behind the image of this writing
as a labor of shroud-weaving are repeated and developed:
Then fludds of sorrow and whole seas of wo
The bancks of all my hope did overbeare
And drovnd my minde in deapts of missery.
Sumetyme I died, sumetyme I was distract,
My sowle the stage of fancies tragedye.
Then furious madness, wher trew reason lackt
Wrate what it would, and scurgde myne own consayte.
Oh, hevy hart who cann thee witnes beare,
What tounge, what penn could thy tormentinge treat
But thyne owne mourning thoughts which present weare,
What stranger minde beleue the meanest part
What altered sence conceve the weakest wo
That tare, that rent, that peirsed thy sadd hart? (ll.140-152)
Deserted by both society and reason, Ralegh here admits the chaotic nature of
his own poem, marked by its "mad," formless swinging from mood to
mood. At the same time, he protests its intrinsic truth and that of the heart
from which it springs. Ralegh's theatricalism is evident in the line: "My
sowle the stage of fancies tragedye," yet the stage, actor and audience
are here all internalized. This is a poetry whose only possible source is
the poet's mad heart, whose only possible producer is the poet's "owne
mourning thoughts" and whose only possible audience is the poet himself.
As such, it stands in sharp opposition to the writing of happier times to which
"sheapherds cumpunye" had been essential. Presented as lacking all
decorum and structure, since it is written in isolation from the society which
had provided everything - from rules of style to the mind's very principles
of "reason" - it nonetheless provides the only true expression of
the speaker's frenzied, solitary soul, a soul whose animating power is now its
overwhelming inner grief. Ralegh's "penn" and "thoughts"
are at one (as suggested by the phrasing of lines 148-9) and they are unique.
The courtly shepherds from whose society and writing Ralegh had in the past
barely distinguished himself, are now correspondingly re-viewed as "stranger
mind[s]," as essentially, internally other, alien to the speaker's "sadd
hart" and able neither to "conceve" nor "treat" it.
As the poem progresses, the tension between remembrance of past bliss
and recognition of present woe grows, and the unquenchable longing for the
past continually disrupts Ralegh's attempts at constructing a more independent,
inner-based present. As the oscillation between moods and tenses quickens,
as syntax and meaning grow obscure, Ralegh seems to be frantically attempting
to regain control over his poem. From line 183, Ralegh is drawn back to a
long description of Elizabeth's Petrarchan and pastoral beauties, piling metaphor
upon metaphor and praise upon praise, when the frenzied epideixis is abruptly
terminated by the authorial voice, much in the manner of the earlier quotation
from "Farewell to the Court":
But leue her prayse; speak thow of nought but wo,
Write on the tale that Sorrow bydds thee tell,
Strive to forgett, and care no more to know
Thy cares are known, by knowinge thos too well.
Discribe her now as she appeeres to thee,
Not as shee did apeere in dayes fordunn. (ll.213-8)
The lines are remarkable for their sudden, brusque turn from the extroverted
writing of praise linked with "thoughts of passed times," to the
introverted writing of woe "now." Internal "Sorrow"
takes the place of Elizabeth as the commissioner of the poetry, just as
"princess Sorrow" replaced the Queen in "Fortune hath taken
thee away," and the outward focus is likewise consciously rejected:
"care no more to know / Thy cares are known." When compared to
the subtle, artful intimation of the writer's authority in poems such as
"Diana" and even "Fortune hath taken thee away," the
abrupt exposure of the controlling voice actually betrays the extreme tenuousness
of Ralegh's hold over his poem. Yet the admission of the textuality of the
poetry also gains a new importance for Ralegh's "mind," starkly
asserting the validity of his perception by presenting the golden Petrarchan
queen as no more than a subjective image in which "shee did appeere"
to Ralegh "in dayes fordunn," rejected in favor of the presumably
less favorable one in which she "appeeres to [him]" now.
Thus, in the midst of chaos, Ralegh attempts to define
and defend his self-centered poetry as he is writing it. More and more emphatically,
continuing the thrust of "Fortune hath taken thee away," Ralegh
comes to designate woeful "love" - namely, his own feelings for
the queen regardless of her response or physical presence, as the immortal
center of this poetry and of the inward-looking self it implies. Ralegh
thus attempts to give his new, unformed identity, "mad" with sorrow,
a reliable, if woeful, center of stability, defined in opposition to the
fickle favor sustaining him in his courtly days:
Vnlastinge passion, soune outworne consayte
Whereon I built, and onn so dureless trust!
My minde had wounds, I dare not say desait,
Weare I resolvde her promis was not Just.
Sorrow was my revendge, and wo my hate;
I pourless was to alter my desire.
My love is not of tyme or bound to date;
My heart's internall heat and livinge fier
Would not, or could be quencht with suddayn shoures.
My bound respect was not confinde to dayes
My vowed fayth not sett to ended houres.
I love the bearinge and not bearinge sprayes
Which now to others do their sweetnes send. (ll.295-307)
The emotions which according to Ralegh are regarded by the court as "foylde
and frutless /. . ./ . . .cleane outworne as things that never weare"
(278-86) are here established as Ralegh's eternal living core, impervious
to the "suddayn shoures" that, like the "fludds of sorrow"
and "seas of wo" of line 140, threaten to drown him. The balanced
stresses and simple, dignified diction of the lines add to the effect of
solemn assurance, which is only slightly marred by the rapid alteration
The renewed self-affirmation based on Ralegh's redefinition
of his "cause of beinge" (l.443) rises from the ruins of his trust
in both Queen and court. The strict separation of the perfect Diana from
the evil female Other now wavers as Ralegh reveals the Queen's mind to contain
"some markes of humayne race / Yet will shee bee a wooman for a fashion
/ So douth shee pleas her vertues to deface" (ll.202-4). The court,
once pictured as a world of timeless concordance, is now alluded to in the
lament for "twelue yeares. . .wasted in this warr /. . ./ Butt I in
them" (ll.120-2), and it is this "I" that Ralegh now attempts
to rescue from total waste. Notwithstanding Ralegh's brave rejection of
courtly Petrarchanism as "outworne consayte" and "merchandise,"
however, when Ralegh attempts to describe his different, self-creating "love,"
he can of course only do so in the language of the court:
But in my minde so is her love inclosde
And is therof not only the best parte
But into it the essence is disposde. . .
Oh love (the more my wo) to it thow art
Yeven as the moysture in each plant that growes,
Yeven as the soonn vnto the frosen grovnd,
Yeven as the sweetness, to th'incarnate rose,
Yeven as the Center in each perfait rovnd,
As water to the fysh, to men as ayre,
As heat to fier, as light vnto the soonn. . . (ll.426-35)
and so on. The attempt here to nail down the extra-lingual "essence"
of his love, to verbally express a res beyond language, necessarily
results in deferral and endless repetition of Petrarchan clichés, a repetition
which Ralegh's favorite device of anaphora, usually adding to the forceful,
assertive tone of his poetry, here only serves to foreground. Petrarchan
sentiment is overemphasized and overstated since it is attempting to span
the abyss at Ralegh's "Center", where the image of the queen had
formerly reigned. The images betray Ralegh's unbreakable links to his past,
and the obsessive reiteration reveals the difficulty of finding a new anchor
when the former has disappeared. And yet the very frenzy of this poetry
distinguishes it from its courtly analogues, as it gives the effect of a
truly anguished subjectivity, an effect of sincerity created not by the
(highly conventional) contents, but by the disorder itself of their passionate
Till the very end Ralegh finds it near-impossible
to reject the life and identity from which he has been banned, fully aware
that "of the same now buried bee the ioy /. . ./ But that the thoughts
and memories of thees / Worke a relapps of passion, and remayne / Of my
sadd harte the sorrow suckinge bees" (ll.411-5). Nevertheless, after
one final desperate cry to the world to "Witness thos withered leues
left on the tree /. . ./ The externall shews what may th'internall bee,"
Ralegh's grim authorial voice returns a final time to the unavoidable truth:
But stay, my thoughts, make end, geue fortune way.
Harshe is the voice of woe and sorrow's sovnd,
Complaynts cure not, and teares do but allay
Greifs for a tyme, which after more abovnde.
To seeke for moysture in th'Arabien sande
Is butt a losse of labor, and of rest.
The lincks which tyme did break of harty bands
Words cannot knytt, or waylings make a new.
Seeke not the soonn in clovds, when it is sett. . .
. . .
Thow lookest for light in vayne, and stormes arise;
Shee sleaps thy death that erst thy danger syth-ed;
Strive then no more, bow down thy weery eyes,
Eyes, which to all thes woes thy hart have guided. (ll.474-492)
The claim that "Words cannot knytt" refers to the inability of
poetry, "now an Idell labor" in the eyes of Elizabeth (357), to
heal Ralegh's social wounds, to restore the "lincks" between heart
and heart, and to rebuild Ralegh's broken identity. It may even allude to
the entire philosophy that believes in the bond between res and verba
- that "the externall showes what may th'internall be" - and
that effort can, in Foucault's words "restore the unbroken plain of
words and things" (The Order of Things, 29-38.) The expression
of such far-reaching doubt suggests the depth of Ralegh's disillusionment
with the world and language upon which he had formerly based himself, although
all that can take their place are chaotic "storms." In a world
upon which the pivotal "fair and harmless light" of Diana has
now set, the full awareness of loss and absence, including the absence inherent
in language, takes the place of the belief in visionary presence, and Ralegh
bids his eyes - responsible for the fantasy - to bow down forever.
The motif of poetic "labor" and the image
of "knit[ting]" words are also connected, however, with Ralegh's
earlier image of his present writing as "shroud-weaving," and
the opposition between courtly and internally-focused poetry is thus strengthened.
The former is "a loss of labour" that can no longer elegantly
"knit" the social reality it addresses. The latter, drawing upon
"thoughts, knitt up by fayth" [whichl shall ever last" (l.390)
does manage to "weave" chaotic sorrow into a work of art, a garment
for a new, inner-focused self, although the text has value and meaning only
for its creator, and is composed in the shadow of impending death.
It is this shroud-weaving that generates the final
stanzas of "Ocean to Scinthia," in which Ralegh concludes his
poem in the pastoral mode with which he had begun. The motif of the declining
sun makes its last appearance here, however now its corresponding image
of the homeward-bound shepherd is foregrounded rather than implied, allowing
Ralegh to present a final portrait of himself as an eternally sorrowful,
yet independent and self-focused lover-poet, approaching the relaxation
and peace of a natural death:
Do then by Diinge, what life cannot do. . .
Vnfolde thy flockes and leve them to the feilds
To feed on hylls, or dales, wher likes them best,
Of what the summer or the springe tyme yeildes,
For love, and tyme, hath geven thee leve to rest.
Thy hart, which was their folde, now in decay
By often stormes, and winter's many blasts
All torne and rent, becumes misfortunes pray,
Falce hope, my shepherds staff, now age hath brast.
My pipe, which loues own hand, gave my desire
To sing her prayses, and my wo vppon,
Dispaire hath often threatened to the fier,
As vayne to keipe now all the rest ar gonn.
Thus home I draw, as deaths longe night drawes onn; (ll.496-509)
The pipe - poetry - which for Ralegh had always been so intimately connected
with "all the rest," indeed seems "vayne" with their
disappearance, though significantly Despair as yet only "threaten[s]"
it to the fire. Ralegh succeeds in playing a final, and different, tune
upon it, one heard fitfully throughout the poem and now dominating its ending.
Unlike the opening pastoral depiction of a shepherd deserted by his fellows,
in the closing pastoral the cause of tragedy is solely the passing of time.
Utilizing an ancient pastoral trope, Ralegh cleverly turns the Queen's rejection
into a natural, inevitable, poetically-fitting event, now calmly if sorrowfully
accepted. Sunset allows the shepherd-speaker his well-earned, almost fortunate
"rest" (l.500), replacing the unreliable, agonizing "rest"
(l.508) from which he has been severed.
Death-as-sunset thus becomes the enabling condition
for the existence of the independent self: it is the "home," the
fold, which the speaker enters in a movement parallel to the abandonment,
the "unfolding," of his flocks of courtly poetry. It is a home in
which confusion and longing come to an end and the final seal is put upon
the poet's new identity, "[doing] then by Diinge, what life cannot
doo." The last notes which the pipe "which loues own hand, gave
my desire / To singe her prayses and my wo vppon" plays, concerned
as they are not with the former ("her prayses") but with the latter
("my wo"), not with the deserting queen but with the woeful, yet
resigned speaker, are devoted to this identity.
It is with this private woe that Ralegh, not without
one last description of turning back his eyes and "gasinge on [his]
loss" (l.514) - a phrase encapsulating the dialectic of vain looking
and recognition of absence which has both impelled and mangled his poem
- finally ends "Ocean to Scinthia": "Her love hath end,
my woe must ever last." This cornerstone of Ralegh's new self is thus
granted an eternal existence beyond death, constituting a radical final
affirmation. Greenblatt has claimed that "inwardness. . .bespeaks withdrawal
and yet is insistently public, for we may only encounter a discursive
inwardness, one dependent not only upon language but upon an audience"
(Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 126.) Here, however, Ralegh turns to
his imagined audience with a final assertion that his "woe" will
continue in the space beyond the poem which has now ended - in the space
beyond language and beyond any audience it may have. This bespeaks an inwardness
whose break with society is more radical, an inwardness existing in the
non-discursive state which the audience cannot enter. Following upon the
expression of identity through the isolating language of woeful "madness,"
it expresses final identity through the most extremely isolating language
The state of imprisonment in which "Ocean to
Scinthia" was composed can be seen as a condition in which repression
and individuation, in their most extreme forms, meet. Imprisonment signifies
both the extreme subjection of individuals to the laws of their society
and at the same time their setting apart from that society. Fittingly,
the poem which Ralegh composed from within this paradoxical state is, on
the one hand, one totally dominated by the social norms, literary paradigms,
desires and language of the courtly community, while on the other hand,
a poem of singular self-awareness, defined in opposition to that community.
Physically imprisoned, Ralegh himself understands his abandonment as a frightening
release from bonds: "A prissoner in her brest I could not bee, / Shee
did vnty the gentell chaynes of love" (ll.329-330). Unwillingly "freed"
from the social milieu which had provided clear limits to his identity and
secure boundaries for his emotions, Ralegh's writing threatens to fall into
chaos. Yet this unexpected freedom is also, as this article has shown, a
challenge, leading Ralegh to the creation of a more self-focused and self-aware
voice, a voice whose beginnings can be found in some of Ralegh's earlier
poems, but which only in "Ocean to Scinthia" comes to fuller expression.
The result is a fascinating, paradoxical text which provides an especially
clear example of Foucault's definition of discourse as "both an instrument
and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point
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title: "The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia," is the
one given in Latham's edition to a poem of which the first ten chapters, if
such existed, have been lost. There are many, however, who disagree with Latham's
reading of the numerals. Pierre Lefranc, Stephen Greenblatt and Philip Edwards,
among others, believe the book to be the "21th," although, as Greenblatt
says, Ralegh "may simply have used the grandiose titles to create an
aura of an immensely long poem, suggesting. . .an almost boundless suffering
immortalized in verse" (Sir Walter Ralegh: The Renaissance Man and
His Roles, 62).
 The gendering is intentional. For the construction of
Woman in the English Renaissance see L. Woodbridge, Women and the English
Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, and S. Davies, The
Idea of Woman in Renaissance Literature. For good surveys
of relatively recent work on Renaissance subjectivity see the introduction
to Richard Hillman's Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English
Drama and the introduction to Elizabeth Hanson's Discovering the Subject
in Renaissance England.
 Both Andrewes
and Perkins are quoted in Shuger, 94-5.
 Hobbes is quoted in Greenblatt, “Psychoanalysis
and Renaissance Culture,” 222.
See also a very similar statement in Thomas Wright: "Words represent
most exactly the very image of the minde and soule. . .for in wordes, as in
a glasse may be seene, a mans life and inclination." (The Passions
of the Minde, 105, quoted in Ferry, 58.)
 See also the discussion in R. Helgerson's "Barbarous
Tongues: The Ideology of Poetic Form in Renaissance England."
 See Michel Foucault, The Order Things, chapter
1. Foucault claims that up to the end of the sixteenth century language was
regarded as "the locus of revelations and. . .truth" and the function
of words was to "form a thin film that duplicates thoughts on the outside"
 See Fineman, 344. See also Murray Krieger, "Poetic
Presence and Illusion," 604.
The exact date and manner in which Ralegh became a courtier
is not clear. There is evidence that he was described as "of the Court"
as early as 1577 [Eccles, M., "Sir Walter Ralegh" in Brief Lives:
Tudor and Stuart Authors, SP Texts and Studies, 79:4 (1982), 110-11, in
Mills, 227] but during these years Ralegh was mainly fighting in Ireland,
and his swift rise to fame only began on his return.
All references to and quotations from Ralegh's poems, unless otherwise noted,
are based on Agnes Latham's 1951 edition of Ralegh's poetry, still considered
the standard (see Mills, 225.)
This point has been convincingly demonstrated in the case of Spenser's Shepheardes
Calender in Louis Montrose's "The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian
See Smith, 124-5. For a less flattering description see Haigh, 100. Both talk
of the collapse of this balance in the 1590's, caused by Essex's increasing
The poem, entitled "A sonnett," and Elizabeth's reply - "An
answer," are reproduced in May 318-9.
See Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: "the ruling elite
believed that a measure of insecurity and fear was a necessary, healthy element
in the shaping of proper loyalties, and. . .deliberately evoked this insecurity.
. .Salutary anxiety blocks the anger and resentment that would well up against
what must, if contemplated in a secure state, seem an unjust order. And. .
.represses those responses at their source, so that potential anger gives
way to obedience, loyalty and admiration." (135, 138).
Elizabeth's reply centers on her control of fortune, showing that she did
not miss the implied disempowerment: "No fortune base, thou saist, shall
alter thee; / And may so blind a wretch then conquer me? / No, no, my pug,
though fortune weare not blind, / Assure thie selfe she could not rule my
The expression is May's, ch. 4
One must note, however, that as with all of Ralegh's poetry, the date of composition
is conjectural. Latham believes it to be 1592, although admits this has only
a "high degree of probability" (xxxvii), and most contemporary commentators
follow her lead (see Greenblatt, 12-13; Lefranc, 99-132; Campbell, 237). For
a summary of the argument on the dating of the poem see Mills, 234-5.
 To the former group belongs, among others, Steven May,
who describes "Ocean to Scinthia" as "an ambitious poem written
by a courtier to regain his sovereign's grace" through its "personal
tone and persuasive strategy. . .set forth in pentameter cross rhyme and a
comparatively conversational language in which similes of all kinds are the
primary ornamental device" (128-9.) Unlike May, Pierre Lefrank acknowledges
the stylistic and thematic confusion of the poem, but argues that it is intentional:
"En realite, ce desordre est de parti pris. Il vise a evoquer, sans qu'aucun
ecran ne s'interpose, le trouble d'une ame dechiree" (134.) Among those
who see the stylistic disorder as a mark of failure is Robert Stillman, who
claims that the poem portrays ""the exhaustion of a whole order
of symbolism upon whose existence [Ralegh's] status at court, his identity
and the coherence of his world depended" (36.) In his book on Ralegh,
Stephen Greenblatt sees the poem as an expression of "the loneliness
of the individual who has come to full awareness of himself for the first
time," however the poem remains for Greenblatt in essence an "abandoned
lover's gesture of despair," an example of what he considers Ralegh's
life-long "theatricalism" (Sir Walter Ralegh, 82, 76).
As Greenblatt points out, whatever his initial intentions, Ralegh himself
probably realized that "Ocean to Scinthia" was not a poem to show
to the queen (Sir Walter Ralegh, 79).
As Philip Sidney points out, the "idea" is the "fore-conceit
of the work" (23-4.) According to the OED, the "fore-conceit"
is "a conception previously formed; a preconception."
See Greenblatt, Sir Walter Ralegh, 93.
Ralegh seems to act out here Foucault's second principle of exclusion from
the discourse of Power: "Since the depth of the Middle Ages, the madman
has been the one whose discourse cannot have the same currency as others.
His word may be considered null and void, having neither truth nor importance,
worthless as evidence. . .On the other hand, strange powers not held by any
other may be attributed to the madman's speech: the power of uttering a hidden
truth" ("The Order of Discourse," 53). Witnessing his own chaotic
poetry, Ralegh indeed claims for his discourse a "hidden truth"
- the truth of the soul - that is very different from the politically-valuable
"truths" Ralegh produced when his poetry was part of the discourse
of Power. Of course Ralegh is not clinically mad; however, in complete isolation
from his former identity, from his community and from its principles of "reason,"
Ralegh's "madness" is not a mere show either. One source of "mad"
power which Ralegh may of-course be deliberately alluding to here is the furor
poeticus, the originally Platonic notion of the irrational yet inspired
See also Debora Shuger, 47-8. Also related to this are Murray Krieger's ideas
on Renaissance "word-magic" in "Poetic Presence and Illusion,"
600. See also the short summary of the history of the relationship of words
and things from Medieval to Early Modern linguistic and poetic theory in Fineman,
Shakespeare's Perjured Eye, 342-5, nt.32.
 This defeat of the Imaginary can also be sensed in
what "Ocean to Scinthia" presents as Elizabeth's abandonment of
her role as loving and enveloping mother and adoption of a forbidding paternalistic
But I unblessed, and ill born creature, . . . That loved her both by fancy and by nature, That drew even with the milk in my first sucking Affection from the parent's breast that bare me, Have found her as a stranger so severe, . . .
A Queen she was to me, no more Belphoebe, A Lion then, no more a milk-white Dove, A prisoner in her breast I could not be, She did untie the gentle chains of love. (ll.323-30)
The earlier image of the sorrow-sucking bees (ll.412-5)
might also be a subtle reference to this possibility, if we see it as alluding
to the popular Petrarchan metaphor of the poet as a bee sucking nectar from
many flowers and transforming it into a new creation, "different, and
better" (see Waller, 51).
See Spenser's Aprill eclogue for what was an influential example of
the identification of the pastoral flock with literary production: in this
eclogue, Spenser, as Colin, presents his epideictic poem to the Queen - Elisa
- in the form of "a milkwhite Lamb" (95-99).
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.