“….One of the ‘papers,’ as they called them in the big Cambridge exam, was on the period from 1569 to 1603. In the course of immersing myself in that brief period, I read the poetry of Sir Walter Ralegh, which amazed me — really amazed me. I couldn’t understand how someone in the 1590s had written poetry that sounded to me uncannily like T.S. Eliot.
“When I came home and entered graduate school at Yale, I chose to do my dissertation on Ralegh. I wanted to discover what it was in this man’s life that made him produce such strange poetry. And it turned out that Ralegh had an astonishing life. He was a courtier and a monopolist and an explorer and an adventurer and a scoundrel and a troublemaker. He wound up spending years in the Tower of London and eventually ended up getting his head chopped off.
“Once I began to understand something about Ralegh’s career, the question with which I had begun turned itself inside out. I wanted to know how someone who had led such a life had written poetry at all. It didn’t make sense. What was someone who was scrambling at court to get the monopoly on playing cards or exploring Guiana doing writing poetry?”
– From ” ‘So that represented my own little rebellion’: The literary adventures of Stephen Greenblatt” by Corydon Ivy at Harvard Gazette (June 3)
Greenblatt’s fascination with Ralegh/Raleigh/etc. produced “Sir Walter Ralegh; the Renaissance man and his roles” (1973), recently excerpted by John Blythe.