With Friends Like These…

By Robert Pinsky on 4.22.09

A famous insult, perfect in its way.

Raleigh’s technique here includes a wit-pattern, the contradiction in each of the first two lines, that the poem then abandons: the third line is kind of bland and noncommittal, seems to relax the derisory paradoxes, then the fourth line, unlike those first two rapier-stokes, is a blunt punch in the nose.

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Here lies the noble Warrior that never blunted sword;
Here lies the noble Courtier that never kept his word;
Here lies his Excellency that governed all the state;
Here lies the Lord of Leicester that all the world did hate.

Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, Raleigh’s patron and protector early in Raleigh’s career, later became Raleigh’s rival as favorite of Queen Elizabeth. The small, concentrated nature of the Court, center of power, glamour and art, is suggested that Raleigh once carried a challenge (to a duel) from Leicester’s son in law the Earl of Oxford—to Sir Philip Sidney.

The nature of the court, context for the enmity that replaced favor between Raleigh and Leicester, is portrayed in Raleigh’s great poem “The Lie,” (page 40 of Essential Pleasures). Here is the second stanza of “The Lie”:

Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church it shows
What’s good, and doth no good:
If church and court reply,
Give potentates the lie.

As well as a poet and courtier, Raleigh was a soldier and explorer. Under King James, he was sentenced to imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1603. He remained there, working on his History of the World, until his release in 1616 to head a gold-seeking expedition to Guiana for James. Eventually imprisoned again, he was beheaded in 1618.

topics: Essential Pleasures