Sir Walter Raleigh’s Hidden Signature
in His Poem “Moral Advice”
(Below is the full text of an article reprinted with permission from The Explicator.)
Raleigh’s MORAL ADVICE
WATER thy plants with grace divine, and hope to live for aye;
Sir Walter Raleigh’s purported atheism, a background topic that is beyond the scope of this study, establishes a provocative context and motive for scrutinizing the quatrain titled “Moral Advice.” Earlier writers have investigated the “school of night” mentioned in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (4.3.251) and its connection to Raleigh’s suspect cohort of London writers during the 1590s (see, for example, Bradbrook). Though Raleigh’s own views in his History of the World and elsewhere focus on the limits of human knowledge and suggest a position that now seems close to deism (see, for example, Kocher 10-13), contemporary accounts show Raleigh’s life “scandalized with atheism” and conjure up incidents of petty sacrilege that include anagrammatizing “God” backwards to spell “dog” (see, for example, Works 743).
Read casually, the poem seems to be a balanced aphorism affirming Christian teachings: The first two lines encourage an auditor to “incline” to Christ and gain the “hope” of eternal life, and the second two denigrate “raw” atheism for failing to affirm that hope. As an imperative statement using second person, the first two lines seem hortative and thus a bit more in keeping with the title than the last two, which make a statement in third person and indicative mood. “Thy” (1-2) may mean “your” or “one’s,” a fine but functional distinction.
Raleigh’s imagery is slight, his basic organic figures conventional: The conceit of the first two lines is that “watered” plants might (or will) “live for aye” by “inclining” fixedly toward Christ—much in the same way that plants follow the sun (or Son). “Watering” figuratively suggests Christian baptism. Contrasting with this affirmative possibility is the assertion in lines 3-4 that death grows from an atheist’s disbelief in Deity. “Raw is the reason...” (emphasis added) strengthens the organic motif a bit through phonic association, calling to mind the raw season of the year, winter, that keep plants dormant.
Period definitions for “raw” include “undiluted” (OED 1567); crude or imperfect (late Middle English [ME]); inexperienced (1561, of persons); “having the skin removed, so that the flesh is exposed; excoriated” (late ME); and painful (1590). Though most of these meanings are admittedly not approbative, the first sense, “undiluted,” may carry with it the suggestion of primal energy. A hint that unorthodox thought (in an orthodox age) is painful also lurks in the poet’s key term.
The words reason and lie (3) both deserve attention, too. Though “reason” would seem to mean “intellectual faculty,” it also means “sanity” and “motive” or cause. “Doth lie” is also a functionally ambiguous pun, meaning both “resides” and “deceives” (OED).
A further intriguing possibility is that “raw” here might mean “uncooked” (its seminal OE meaning) or “unburnt, unbaked; not hardened or fused by fire” (OED 1634). Thus the closing lines of the poem might depict an atheist’s head going unscorched by the flames of hell. As synecdoche, “head” might stand in for the whole person (OED 1535). These observations mean that the poem may actually vindicate the atheist for his denial of the Christian tenets of reward and (especially) of punishment in the afterlife. Thus, for example, line 3 might mean, “Atheistic belief, and the person who holds such a view, goes unpunished in eternity.” Given the slippery lexical ambiguities of the line, other paraphrases obtain, including, e.g., “Painful is the instigating cause that moves a mind toward disbelief” and “Vigorous is the sanity of an atheist’s thinking.” Raleigh’s careful diction, then, allows his poem to explore the “raw” thinking of an atheist and even to mutter some unorthodox possibilities in it—all with impunity and deniability.
More tangentially, the elements “Raw [...] reason” and “an atheist’s head” (3) may echo the extant term “raw-head”—“the name of a nursery bug-bear, usu. coupled with BLOODY-BONES” (OED 1550). If consciously implicit, the linkage between “raw-head” and the atheist’s mindset seems ambivalent. Equally irreducible is the pun in the closing line, “Witch saith the soul of man doth die [...]” (4). Perhaps both details, if conscious, suggest a sly linkage between predictions about the afterlife and sorcery or superstition.
Compounding further the problem of deducing the poet’s tone—and thus his meaning—is a playfully embedded pun on the name “Walter Raleigh.” This hidden signature, a witty instance of suppressed design that may have gone undetected these four centuries, comprises the words WATER (1, capitalized thus in Works) and Raw (3), with both words being emphatic frontal elements in the poem.
Readers who pick up on these insistent name-element clues and go seeking more fully spelled-out forms of them will find that lines 1-2 supply three instances of the “missing l” in WA[L]TER—that is, in plants, live, and incline. (Could “Walter”—like “Ralph”—have a “silent l”?) Even more convincingly, Raw in line 3 soon finds a complement in lie (in “Raw is the reason that doth lie[...]”) to generate “Raw[...]lie.” This sequential and progressive accumulation, “WA[L?]TER [...] / [...] / Raw[...]lie,” shows sly authorization. Acutely tuned to the phonics of his diction, Raleigh would surely have been aware that he was encoding a version of his own name.
Further, since each of these two nameforms, WATER and raw-lie, neatly dominates one “half” of the dialectic, the balanced structure of the poem seems to link its ambiguously dualistic statement with the skeptical author. Put simplistically, Walter can associate himself with the comforts of belief and of baptism while Raleigh entertains the “raw” appeal of atheism.
The poem may also be formally structured to hide a “pattern of 7.” The lines themselves are “fourteeners,” each with seven accents. The element “lie” that completes the name “Raw-lie” is the seventh word in its line. And, if the poet spelled his own name using such forms as Raleigh or Rawlegh, the number 7 designates the number of characters in the name itself.
Given its gamy formalism and the way the initial-word nameplay pulls a reader into the role of coterie player and focuses attention on the lefthand elements, I deduce that the poem may also be constructed to play further games by means of its initial alphabetic acrostics or its initial words. (The pun in Which on “Witch” [initial in 4], a substitution that I think may have been routine among Elizabethan punsters, adds a bit of fuel to this signal fire.) The emphatic alphabetic acrostic WT RW, for example, is a shorthand sequence for “WalTer RaWleigh.” WT RW might also encode “wit rue,” “witty are you,” and/or “W. true” as coterie “meanings.” And the full down/up letterstring—that is, WT RW WR TW—might be an encrypted form of “Wit[ty] R.W. [the poet’s reversed initials], W.R., too.” Other “readings” are “Witty reared W[alter?],” “Wit, rue W.R., too,” “Witty row were two” (that is, down, up), and “Witty row, where to?” In any case, the Maker seems likely to be having fun teasing his imagined audience.
The initial word elements that hide “WATER...Raw....” likewise invite attention. As a codestring, the sequence WATER[...] Then[...] Raw[...] Which[...] might mean, e.g., “Water-thin row-edge,” “Weighty art in raw edge,” “Water-thin rouge,” “Weigh tartan rouge,” “Whiter than rouge,” “Watered he narrow wedge,” “Weighty, earthen, raw edge,” “We tear th’ narrow edge,” “Water-thin, raw witch,” “Wyatt [suggesting the antecedent poet] erred in our edge,” “Why turd and roach?” and/or “Weigh turd in rouge (...in our edge).” “Edge,” I propose, is a conceit for the knife-thin acrostic lineup that fringes the poet’s text. My own favorite “decoding” of the first-word codestring is “We terrored a Narrow Age.”
The four terminal words of the poem, balancing those at the front that seem so fraught with possibility, offer another skimpy arena for gamy exploration: The endword string aye / stay / head / dead might encode such readings as these samples: “...I stated” (perhaps completing what the poet has just “said” in his initial elements); “Eye staid deed” (i.e., “Look at this sober action”); “Ass t’eye, hated”; “I stay hid, dead”; “I stayed dead”; “I stay hated”; “I stay heated”; “I stay headed”; and/or “I stay heeded.” Readers here who know the details of Raleigh’s life may see relevant implications in these encryptions. For example, “I stay headed” might allude to the chopping block. “I stay heated” might mean “I burn forever” and “I stay passionate.” And “I stay heeded” might mean “People are still listening to my ‘advice’.”
Reinforcing my conclusion that “Moral Advice” embeds formal coterie games are various instances of playfulness in Raleigh’s other verses. “The Lover’s Maze,” as one example, is a kind of structural riddle comprising twelve iambic monometer quatrains, tiny stanzas assembled on the page in four rows and three columns, checkerboard style, so that the poem can either be read either “down” or “across” (see Works 730; Poems 80, listing the work as “conjectural”). [Graves’ interpolated note: A copy of “The Lover’s Maze appears below, following the Works Cited list.] ”Another “namepun” poem that is probably Raleigh’s opens with the iambic tetrameter line “I C U R, good Mounser Carr,” disparaging an acquaintance with “CUR” (see Poems 174, note), an alphabetic epithet reminiscent of dog, an anagram of God . More generally, Raleigh’s reputation as a secretive, unorthodox, cabalistic writer also makes us think he might have played games with the readers he envisioned, witty poets like himself. Finally, we know from various parallels including the lost numeric patternings discovered fairly recently in Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion that finding instances of sprezzatura (or “suppressed design”) and hidden wit in poetry is fully compatible with the aesthetic paradigms and formal practices of Raleigh’s age (see Hieatt; and see, for example, Graves).
—Roy Neil Graves, University of Tennessee at Martin
Bradbrook, M. C. The School of Night: A Study in the Literary Relationships of Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.
Above left: Another playful poem attributed to Raleigh. The poem can be read in various permutations.