Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Life and Death Matter

Just what does the name Sir Walter Raleigh conjure up for you? A restaurant that used to exist in Bethesda? The name on my father’s tobacco can? Someone from a history lesson I once learned and promptly forgot? When I asked my husband that question, his first response – Was he a real person?

It turns out he was quite real, living from 1552 to 1618. His was a life of impossible choices as he fell in and out of royal favor. I’ve recently read again and again a piece shared with me by my friend Ulysses by Paul Auster called “The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh”. It is a study in determination and courage with the certainty of death ever present.

Walter Raleigh established the first English colony in the New World on Roanoke Island (off the coast of present-day North Carolina) in 1584. By 1588 all the inhabitants had disappeared, giving it the name The Lost Colony. He found favor with Queen Elizabeth, being knighted in 1585. He secretly married one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, who was pregnant for the third time. Despite the fact that this marriage dismissed her from the Queen’s service and temporarily landed him in prison, he remained committed to her, fathering a son Walter.

In 1603 soon after the death of Queen Elizabeth, his fortunes changed significantly as he found himself languishing in the depths of the Tower of London on a life sentence trumped up over a single conversation he had with the Spanish.

In 1616 he was presented with the difficult choice of remaining in prison with certain eventual death or being released to head an expedition to the New World with the rather impossible goal of stealing gold from the Spanish. If he succeeds, he will be pardoned. If he fails, he will face certain and immediate death. In his heart of hearts, he probably understood that he would die with either choice, but the lure of the New World and the intrigue of the challenge made his choice for him.

For some odd reason he chose to take his son Walter, who was indeed a wild child, with him. The trip was plagued from the onset. The crew rebels, no gold can be found, the Spanish are predictably hostile, and worst of all, his son is murdered in the jungle.

But here is the kicker in this story. Knowing full well what awaits him back home, he chooses to return. Why not just live out his days on some tropical island or disappear into the wilderness in the vastness of the New World? Was it his anguish over his son’s murder? Thoughts of seeing his wife again? The remote possibility his death sentence would not be carried out? We’ll never know. With whatever rationale, he goes back, where as duly promised his head is cut off with an axe in 1618.

Paul Auster, the author of the article, finds that Sir Walter Raleigh had learned not only the art of living, but also the art of dying. He depicts death as a wall and offers the following observation:

Each man approaches the wall. One man turns his back, and in the end he is struck from behind. Another goes blind at the very thought of it and spends his whole life groping ahead in fear. And another sees it from the very beginning, and though his fear is no less, he will teach himself to face it, and go through life with open eyes. Every act will count, even to the last act, because nothing will matter to him anymore. He will live because he is able to die. And he will touch the very wall.

I love this story of courage with impossible choices that took this man to his death scene, where his last words were “Strike man, strike.” I would like to think I can embrace life’s and death’s choices with the same conviction.


Blogger Mother of Invention said...

Well, I'm certainly with you in that I'd never have gone back there! What was he thinking??!!

5:23 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I don't know what I would do, but I respect that Raleigh's decision, however dire the circumstances. He was informed and he chose home and country, family and death, versus a life in exile.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

MOI -- This was a man who didn't run away from anything obviously. As Kristin says, he made informed choices understanding the consequences.

Kristin -- Choosing death, under any circumstance, has got to be the most difficult decision anyone could ever make. Throughout history there have been people who were willing to die for their beliefs. I suppose in a sense he is just another one of them.

5:57 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

You have to love how sporting those Brits are. Coming home to face the axe. It's like the Redcoats in the Revolutionary War, standing in neat rows in open fields so that the Yanks could pick them off. It's like Tony Blair saying of the Iranians who took the British sailors captive, "I hope we manage to get them to realise they have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase." Oh, how teddibly quaint.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Matt -- At least he didn't have to spend the rest of his life pacing the stone floor of his cell in the Tower of London.

10:07 PM  

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