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13 January, 2012
The Glory Of English Prose|
3. Sir Walter Raleigh
by Coleridge, Stephen
|My Dear Antony,
I could write you many letters like my last one about the Bible,
and perhaps some day I will go back to that wonderful Book and
write you some more letters about it; but now I will go on and tell
you about some of the great writers of English prose that came
after the translation of the Bible.
Those translators were the great founders of the English
language, which is probably on the whole the most glorious organ of
human expression that the world has yet known.
It blends the classic purity of Greek and the stately severity
of Latin with the sanguine passions and noble emotions of our
A whole life devoted to its study will not make you or me
perfectly familiar with all the splendid passages that have been
spoken and written in it. But I shall show in my letters, at least
some of the glorious utterances scattered around me here in my
library, so that you may recognise, as you ought, the pomp and
majesty of the speech of England.
One of the great qualities that was always present in the
writings of Englishmen from the time of Elizabeth down to the
beginning of the nineteenth century was its restraint.
Those men never became hysterical or lost their perfect
The deeper the emotion of the writer the more manifest became
the noble mastery of himself.
When Sir Walter Ralegh, that glorious son of Devon, from which
county you and I, Antony, are proud to have sprung, lay in the
Tower of London awaiting his cowardly and shameful execution the
next day at the hands of that miserable James I., writing to his
beloved wife, with a piece of coal, because they even denied him
pen and ink, face to face with death, he yet observed a calm and
noble language that is truly magnifical—to use the old Bible
"For the rest," he wrote, "when you have travailed and wearied
your thoughts on all sorts of worldly cogitations, you shall sit
down by sorrow in the end. Teach your son also to serve and fear
God while he is young, that the fear of God may grow up in him.
Then will God be a Husband unto you and a Father unto him; a
Husband and a Father which can never be taken from you.
Sir Walter Ralegh, long before he came to his untimely end, had
written in his great History of the World a wonderful
passage about death; it is justly celebrated, and is familiar to
all men of letters throughout the world, so I will quote a portion
of it for you:—
"I cannot write much. God knows how hardly I stole this time
when all sleep; and it is time to separate my thoughts from the
"Beg my dead body, which living was denied you; and either lay
it at Sherburne, if the land continue, or in Exeter Church by my
father and mother. I can write no more. Time and Death call me
"The Everlasting, Infinite, Powerful and Inscrutable God, that
Almighty God that is goodness itself, mercy itself, the true life
and light, keep you and yours, and have mercy on me and teach me to
forgive my persecutors and false accusers, and send us to meet in
His Glorious Kingdom. My true wife, farewell. Bless my poor boy,
pray for me. My true God hold you both in His Arms.
"Written with the dying hand of, sometime thy husband, but now
alas! overthrown, yours that was, but now not my own.
Sir Walter Ralegh was born only a few miles down below Ottery
St. Mary, in the same beautiful valley from which you and I,
Antony, and the poet have come. The peal of bells in the old church
tower at Otterton was given by him to the parish; and when "the lin
lan lone of evening-bells" floats across between the hills that
guard the river Otter, it should fall upon our ears as an echo of
the melody that strikes upon our hearts in Ralegh's words.
"The Kings and Princes of the world have always laid before them
the actions, but not the ends, of those great ones which preceded
them. They are always transported with the glory of the one, but
they never mind the misery of the other, till they find the
experience in themselves.
"They neglect the advice of God, while they enjoy life, or the
hope of it; but they follow the counsel of Death upon the first
approach. It is he that puts into man all the wisdom of the world,
without speaking a word; which God, with all the Words of His Law,
promises and threats, doth not infuse.
"Death which hateth and destroyeth man is believed; God which
hath made him and loves him is always deferred. It is, therefore,
Death alone that can suddenly make man to know himself. He tells
the proud and insolent that they are but abjects, and humbles them
at the instant; makes them cry, complain and repent; yea, even to
hate their fore-passed happiness.
"He takes account of the rich, and proves him a beggar; a naked
beggar which hath interest in nothing but in the gravel that fills
his mouth. He holds a glass before the eyes of the most beautiful
and makes them see therein their deformity and rottenness, and they
"O eloquent, just and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou
hast persuaded; what none have dared thou hast done; and whom all
the world have flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and
despised; thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness,
all the pride, cruelty and ambition of man, and covered it all over
with these two narrow words—HIC JACET."
Your loving old