Sir Walter Raleigh was an adornment of England’s Golden Age – the reign of Elizabeth I.
The arts, particularly poetry and drama, flourished – not just among the intellectual elite, but in the everyday lives of the people.
Shakespeare performed in his own plays at The Globe and spent his evenings with fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlow.
Schoolboys learned by heart The Fairie Queen by Edmund Spenser, his tribute to Gloriana herself, and John Donne – although a clergyman – wrote erotic love poetry and sailed with the fleet that harassed and hunted Spanish treasure ships off Cadiz.
That fleet was under the command of Sir Walter Raleigh – poet, scholar, politician and adventurer.
Clash of the titans? Sir Walter Raleigh and Amy Winehouse
Raleigh typified the spirit of the age – the belief that nothing was beyond the reach of men with character and courage.
England stood alone against continental Europe and, thanks to English seamanship and English weather, destroyed the Armada which would have made this royal throne of kings a Spanish colony.
English sailors opened up the New World, bringing home far greater treasures than the potatoes and tobacco that made Raleigh famous.
And, even in adversity, the English were indomitable.
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In prison and about to be executed for treason of which he was innocent, Raleigh neither raged against fate nor begged for mercy, but wrote a history of the world.
He also composed some of the best love poetry in the English language.
It is the excellence of Raleigh’s work that makes it hard to believe that the Cambridge University examination board has asked its third-year English students to compare his poems with lyrics from an Amy Winehouse pop song.
A comparison as the Cambridge examiners should know – would be possible only if the poem and lyrics had something in common.
The word they should have used was contrast.
Raleigh’s As You Came From The Holy Land is exquisite; Winehouse’s Love Is A Losing Game is trite rubbish.
Indeed, the lines ‘And now the final frame/Love is a losing game’ sound like part of a joke verse written for a satirical magazine.
Let us hope that, on reflection, the Cambridge examiners identify with two equally banal lines of the lyric: ‘Why do I wish I never played?/Oh, what a mess we made.’ English literature and Amy Winehouse have never met. So why did the dons do it?
Why did they hold themselves up to such ridicule?
Associates: Sir Walter Raleigh was a one-time favourite of Elizabeth I …
Cut through all the official spokesman’s nonsense that ‘the idea is to assess students’ abilities dealing with unseen writing from across the field of English literature’.
Just remember his comment that the choice of a Winehouse lyric was supposed to show that the ancient university is truly rooted in the 21st century.
In reality, what this means is: never mind the quality, think about the date! Be cool! Get with it!
Forget about standards and remember the need to be ‘accessible’ – to reach out to people who have never heard of Walter Raleigh or think this is the name of a bicycle.
In such behaviour, the Cambridge examiners have embodied as much the spirit of their age as Walter Raleigh was of his.
For we live in a time when – instead of determining to lift up readers to the heights of great literature – we feel the need to bring reading down to the depths of the semi-literate.
Shakespeare – the Elizabethan who is England’s greatest achievement – has suffered appallingly at the hands of men and women who want to make his work ‘accessible’.
Last year in Oxford – the other ancient seat of learning – I saw a production of The Merchant Of Venice which was designed to attract young people for whom England’s greatest poet and playwright had no charm.
Shylock interspersed his speeches with swigs from a can of lager and Portia was dressed in faux fur.
Two other crucial characters, Antonio and Bassanio, wore Trilby hats tipped over their eyes – presumably to show they were the sort of lads you meet at a disco.
I have no idea how well they spoke the lines. Thanks to the pop music played in the background, I could not hear a word they said.
Perhaps the result was accessible to young people, but it was barely Shakespeare.
The producers of that play had failed to understand that Shakespeare – typical of all that was best in Elizabethan England – did not expect his audiences to be staid and sad.
The working men and women at The Globe Theatre were rowdy; they drank and ate during the performance, booed the villains, applauded the heroes and cheered at the happy endings.
The Elizabethans had less time for dull conformity than the pop magazines that urge young people to follow fashion.
But they recognised and respected excellence.
In the words of Hamlet, they believed in ‘caviar to the general’ – the general public, that is.
The heresy that popular entertainment could not be of a high quality never crossed their minds.
The belief in excellence bred a passion for endeavour. Nothing, they thought, was quite beyond them. So anything was possible.
As Sir Francis Drake set out to go round the world, he wrote to Sir Francis Wolsingham – one of the great statesmen of the time – that ‘continuing on to the end, until it be thoroughly finished, yields the only true glory’.
… while Amy spends her time with junkie rocker Pete Doherty (left) and husband Blake Fielder Civil, who is currently in jail
That is a hymn to determination, to will power, which illustrates how the greatness of Elizabethan England was achieved.
But, above all, the Elizabethan age was a time of hope. The second-rate was never regarded as sufficient and out of the violence of that era there came chivalry.
Sir Philip Sidney, killed at the battle of Zutfen, gave his water bottle to a dying soldier with the words: ‘Your need is greater than mine.’
Sidney was a poet, too. Thinking of his lost love, Penelope Devereaux, he wrote:
‘My true love hath my heart and I have his
‘By just exchange to one another given.’
Contrast (not compare) that with Amy Winehouse’s
”Played out by the band/Love is a losing hand’,
and then turn again to Walter Raleigh.
‘But true love is a durable fire In the mind ever burning
‘Never sick, never old, never dead From itself never turning.’
Those lines – the last stanza of the Cambridge test piece – were written by a man who fought for his Queen and island, sailed to Venezuela to bring home gold and sacked the Spanish fleet in the harbour at Cadiz
In Elizabethan England, a man could be both a poet and a pirate without people asking why he wasted his time composing verse or complaining that he did not spend enough of the year at sea. It was the age of sights set as high as the rooftops.
That is why admiration of Raleigh’s work has survived for 500 years. Who believes Amy Winehouse’s verse will be remembered in five?
It is the cult of celebrity, not the appreciation of excellence and beauty, that accounts for its appearance in the Cambridge examination paper.
And that is typical of so much that passes for literature today.
The Cambridge examiners may claim that the works of Winehouse were fit to print on the same paper as the writings of Raleigh.
But, in truth, they were paying homage to cheap notoriety and the belief that celebrity is, in itself, a virtue.
Merit alone could not have justified the pop lyric’s sudden academic elevation.
It was chosen because pictures of its writer appear in the media.
By treating her as if she were relevant to English literature, the Cambridge examiners have made themselves look absurd.
To be fair, it has been suggested that an Amy Winehouse lyric can be fully understood and appreciated only if it is set to her music.
That, in itself, raises questions about why the Cambridge examiners chose to ask their students to judge it as poetry alone.
But there is another point to be made. Play any Amy Winehouse track and then follow it with a recording of Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia On A Theme by Thomas Tallis – a piece which is a homage to Elizabethan music.
You will not be able to compare the two. There is no comparison.
SIR WALTER RALEIGH: GENIUS WHO LOST HIS HEAD
Renaissance man: Sir Walter Raleigh, soldier, explorer, poet
BORN: 1552; Hayes Barton, Devon.
EDUCATED: Oriel College, Oxford.
CAREER: Soldier, courtier, poet and explorer. Knighted in 1585 for his plan to colonise Virginia. Fell out of favour with Elizabeth I. The new King James took away his house, the governorship of Jersey and his position of influence, then sent him to the tower. Executed in 1618 by King James on trumped-up treason charges.
ACHIEVEMENTS: The ultimate celebrity of his time, Raleigh was idolised. Searched for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold in South America. Attempted to colonise America. Commanded the fleet for notable victories over Spain. Served in Parliament for three different counties. His poetry was set to music and were the pop songs of the day.
VICES: Made tobacco smoking fashionable. Had a weakness for the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting.
PRIVATE LIFE: Fathered a child by local woman Alice Goold while in Ireland. Married Elizabeth Throckmorton in 1591, a lady-inwaiting to Queen Elizabeth, without the Queen’s permission. Throckmorton was secretly pregnant, and the child was sent to a wet nurse and its existence denied.
SOCIAL CIRCLE: A favourite of the Queen for more than ten years, he famously placed his cloak over wet ground so that she could walk on it. Friends with playwright Christopher Marlowe. The explorer Humphrey Gilbert, his half-brother, was a great influence on him.
FORTUNE: The Queen gave him stupendous gifts, including a Bishop’s palace on the banks of the Thames. He became immensely wealthy after buying a monopoly on cloth exports. He funded many of his explorations himself – losing huge sums when these failed. When Raleigh fell out of favour, the Queen stripped him of these privileges.
HE SAID: ‘A man must first govern himself ere he is fit to govern a family; and his family ere he be fit to bear the government of the Commonwealth.’ Upon execution: ‘Let us dispatch. At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear. Strike man, strike.’
THEY SAID: When Raleigh’s severed head was shown to the crowd, historians of the time say a groan of regret rose from the crowd saying: ‘We have not such another head to be cut off.’
AMY WINEHOUSE: OFF THE RAILS
Heroic effort: A bleeding Amy puts out the rubbish in the early hours of the morning
BORN: September 14, 1983; Southgate, London.
EDUCATED: Susi Earnshaw Theatre School, Sylvia Young Theatre School (asked to leave aged 15 for ‘not applying herself’ and having a nose ring). Finished education at private school The Mount, in Mill Hill, North-West London. Five GCSEs.
CAREER: Two albums: 2003’s Frank, and Back To Black in 2006.
ACHIEVEMENTS: Back To Black has gone platinum five times over in the UK. She’s won five U.S. Grammy awards, more than any other British singer, two Ivor Novellos and one Brit.
VICES: Drugs, of course. Filmed smoking crack cocaine in January. She’s a known user of ecstasy, ketamine, cocaine and heroin. Has an eating disorder and is a self-harmer.
PRIVATE LIFE: Eventful. An early romance with now husband Blake Fielder-Civil was broken off for a year by an affair with chef Alex Claire. With Blake locked up since November accused of GBH and perverting the course of justice, she has been romantically linked to Pete Doherty and Mick Withnall from Babyshambles, among others.
SOCIAL CIRCLE: Friends with producer Mark Ronson and rock wild child Kelly Osbourne.
FORTUNE: Recently estimated at £10million, but her mother Janis disagrees. ‘I handle her finances and I know she doesn’t even have £1million in the bank.’
SHE SAYS: ‘I feel disgusting. Blake is the only person who stops me feeling like this.’ ‘My destructive side has grown a mile wide.’
THEY SAY: Johnny Headlock, minder: ‘She’s got a serious drug problem and I would add a sex addiction.’
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