A Shroud for the Mind: Ralegh’s Poetic Rewriting of the Self
Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004)
Sir Walter Ralegh’s longest, most complex, and probably unfinished poem “The 11th: and last booke of the Ocean to Scinthia,” has long served as a riddle for interpreters. While scholars have disagreed on almost all aspects related to the poem, from title and date to whether the poem is genuinely unfinished or intentionally unpolished, whether it is Ralegh’s masterpiece or a clear-cut failure, “Ocean to Scinthia” is usually treated in isolation from Ralegh’s earlier poetry. This article will show that while there are structural and thematic differences between the poetry written in Ralegh’s days of courtly favor and the poem recording his downfall, “Ocean to Scinthia” expresses qualities characteristic of Ralegh’s writing throughout. Foremost among these is a strong impulse of self-assertion, and a concomitant, growing anxiety regarding the true efficacy of language as the tool for such assertion. In “Ocean to Scinthia,” this anxiety, reaching its climax, resolves itself in the idea of writing as “labour,” involving the implicit rejection of the sprezzatura which had characterized Ralegh the courtier, and asserting the existence of a different, internally rather than externally-focused speaking self.