Raleigh’s Quest for Judgement
In The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage
Sir Walter Raleigh’s turbulent life in the British court showed him just how cruel the world of politics could be. When he was imprisoned in a trial that was called a “mockery of justice” (Williams 143), he became very bitter towards the court of England. His anger and opinions were expressed in his writing, and they helped to mold his literary voice. Presumably penned in 1603 upon his imprisonment and sentence of death, The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage addresses the events that brought him to his present condition, as he prepares himself for a much happier life after death. Raleigh constructs this piece using a combination of different metrical and rhythmic patterns to express his defiance of formal structure, and uses the idea of the pilgrimage to illustrate his journey towards the rightful judgement he so desires in heaven.
Raleigh made a point of not conforming to the norms of the stylized poetry at the time. His passion and drive, coupled with his anger and emotion drew from him a style of poetry that was completely his own, and this is all evident in The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage. Instead of writing in the fashionable iambic pentameter – the form mastered by Petrarch and others – this poem has many different metrical and rhythmic patterns throughout. The first stanza is iambic tetrameter with many substitutions. For example, the opening line begins with a trochaic substitution; the stress is on give rather than me. The sixth line ends with a pyric substitution. Rhythmically the first stanza is a-b-a-b followed by a rhyming couplet.
Raleigh uses the pilgrim -”one who journeys (usually a long distance) to some sacred place, as an act of religious devotion” (OED online)- to describe himself, as he prepares for his death. He is about to embark on the ultimate pilgrimage -”the course of mortal life figured as a journey?especially as a journey to a future state of rest or blessedness” (OED online). Raleigh demands for all of the elements needed to take this final pilgrimage, including the scallop-shell (badge of a returning pilgrim) and the scrip (wallet carried by a pilgrim), along with a staff of faith, a bottle of salvation, a gown of glory. It is only after he has these items so important to him -signified by the colon after the word gage- that he will take this pilgrimage. All of these images create the picture of a man preparing for a long journey to a sacred place, in Raleigh’s case it is heaven.
The second stanza follows the same rhythm as the first, starting with a-b-a-b followed by a series of rhyming couplets. However, lines seven through twelve are trochaic rather than iambic. Here, Raleigh states that he doesn’t want to be embalmed -which was a frequent practice at the time. He wishes for blood to be the balmer, to keep his body pure while his soul travels to heaven “like a white palmer” (line 9) -”a pilgrim who had returned from the Holy Land” (OED online). In lines thirteen and fourteen, “And there I’ll kiss / The bowl of bliss”, he switches to iambic dimeter, which also occurs again in the next stanza. Raleigh strategically places these shorter rhyming couplets so that they are strongly emphasized, because he is stating that in kissing the bowl of bliss, he will be accepted into the life of continual happiness. Lines fifteen through eighteen are back to iambic tetrameter, and they say that his soul will never be thirsty again, as he will drink eternally.
The third stanza begins again with the pattern of a-b-a-b. Here he says that he will meet more souls, “That have shook off their gowns of clay / And go apparelled fresh like me” (line 21-22). He refers to life on earth as a gown of clay; this sounds claustrophobic, like weight on ones shoulders that is smothering. The next six lines are four of iambic dimeter, split up and followed by lines of iambic tetrameter, in a c-c-d-e-e-d pattern. The lines of dimeter continue to emphasize the rhyming words first and thirst, wells and dwells. At the end of this stanza Raleigh begins to paint heaven as the perfect kingdom, with images of nectar suckets (sweetmeats), and crystal buckets.
The poem continues in rhyming couplets to the end, constantly moving between iambic and trochaic tetrameter. In lines twenty-nine to thirty-four, he continues to describe the decadence that he believes heaven will be, “Strewed with rubies thick as gravel; / Ceilings of diamond, sapphire floors, / High walls of coral and pearly bowers” (line 32-34). He and the other souls will travel on these holy paths after they have been filled with the immortal drink from the previous stanza. From lines thirty-five to fifty, Raleigh tells of how they will then move to heaven’s bribeless hall to be rightfully judged by God himself. Here he cunningly comments on his own unjust trial, and his bitterness is felt with phrases such as no corrupted voices, forged accusers, vain-spent journey. He knows that he will be judged rightly in heaven, “for there Christ is the King’s Attorney / Who pleads for all without degrees” (line 40-41). In line forty-two the word angel(s) also meant a small gold coin at the time, and was a frequently used pun. In this line, God has his angels (with its duality) but has no fee, referring to the penalty of death that Raleigh has been sentenced.
The next eight lines, which are either a new stanza or part of the previous one, continue to poke and prod at Raleigh’s unfair trial. He depicts a scene where the grand jury of our sins gives all the people guilty verdicts, referring to the jury and verdict of his trial. Then, as it is in the Bible, Jesus gives up his life to save the people, “Christ pleads His death, and then we live” (line 46). Raleigh addresses Jesus as the one who has never sinned -unblotted lawyer- and praises him for being the savior of a sinful mankind. “Thou movest salvation even for alms / Not with a bribed lawyers palms” (line 49-50)- this is Raleigh’s final stab at his trial where he believes the court had been bribed.
During this period of time, there was strong belief in the dead person’s soul rising to heaven, so criminals were be-headed; the idea being that one’s soul could never rise without its head. Therefor Raleigh would not go to heaven; he would be denied the chance to be fairly judged by God. In what is known as the final stanza, lines fifty-one through fifty-eight, Raleigh makes his final plea as though he were moments from his death, and he does it in pentameter to emphasize it. He asks God, “Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread, / Put on my soul an everlasting head!” (line 55-56) so that he may rise to heaven and see all the decadence and beauty that he described, and so he can finally be given his rightful trial and judgement.
Raleigh purposely wrote this poem as though the author was moments away from death because he knew that he was in that position himself. He wanted to express all his feelings of anger towards the court of England, and his fear of dying without being fairly tried. In The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, Raleigh lashes out by breaking away from formal structure to show that he will not be beaten by their trial. He uses the pilgrimage to illustrate the journey he hopes will take him to heaven, where he will face God’s judgement, and be rightfully spared.