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Five sonnets in honour of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Executed on the Scaffold, Westminster, 29 October, 1618.
By Richard Berengarten.

He dresses in the Tower

AT five, the priest. The prisoner, confessed,
Cheers up a little, even seeming merry,
Taking his usual care in how he’s dressed,
Stylish as ever, fashionable (very)—
Doublet, hair-hued; taffeta breeches, black;
Waistcoat, embroidered, black; kid gloves, in hand;
Gown, velvet, also black, draped on his back;
Silk stockings, ashen-toned; a starched ruff-band;
Hair and beard, combed; nightcap, beneath hat-brim.
On this his death-day, no-one shall fault him.
Such polished combination will gainsay
Him flashy or flamboyant in array.
Today, he means to make the perfect showing,
This day of all days, day of his outgoing.

He walks to Westminster

BEFORE he leaves the Tower, a cup of wine
A friend has brought him, fiery Spanish sack.
Asked how he likes it, he replies, “Sir, fine!”
And witty, even jaunty, parries back,
“If I had time, why, I should sip my fill,
But since Time’s hounds close in now for their kill,
Meet (meat?) for chase, I relish it more still.”
Then, as he leaves the Gatehouse, such crowds mill
He nearly swoons, yet pushes onwards through.
He greets a bald man “Sir, what do you do
Out and about, on such a chilly day?”
“Sir Walter, I have come here but to pray—
That God may grant you mercy as you die.”
“Then take my cap. You’ll need it more than I.”

He speaks on the scaffold

UPON the scaffold, now his time has come,
He makes a speech, and it is fabulous,
Part apologia, part encomium,
Theatre, worthy of Webster. Those of us
Who have admired or loved him find we barely
Can hold back tears, he speaks so fine and fairly.
And now, head bared, he has knelt down and prayed,
He stands, shakes hands with friends, removes his cloak,
And runs his thumb along the axe’s blade.
Facing his Death, lays claim to his last joke,
Self-quotes, “We die in earnest not in jest,”
But now he quips, as if not much impressed
(Knowing Death does exactly as He pleases),
“Sharp medicine, but good for all diseases.”

He meets Death at Westminster

WITH head placed on the block, he flexes arms,
Bared elbows bent, and patiently lays palms
Crossed against shoulders. Speaking calm and steady,
He tells the axeman: “Sir, now I am ready.
When I stretch forth my hands, so—then dispatch.’
But now, a hitch, a glitch, an audience-catch—
Someone shouts out, “Sir Walter, you should face
Dawnward if you would find eternal grace.”
He laughs aloud, “If heart be right, which way
Lieth the head shall matter not the least,”
And, showing not a hint of disarray,
Stands up, ensuring that he faces east,
Then takes one morsel more of time to pray,
Meet for the blade, his biter at Death’s feast.

Westminster, the execution

WHEN ravenous Death licked at him no-one spoke
And the crowd held its breath. No murmur broke.
When Death sliced through him like a loaf of bread
His lips half-moved in his half-severed head.
When Death tore through him like a fair field ploughed
A huge groan throbbed and echoed through the crowd.
And when his head was lifted by the hair
And brandished to all four sides of the square,
Someone called out (as if of Tamburlane),
“Stars will climb skies but some great stars must fall.”
So perished England’s gambler Gaterall
Who grew in Devon, scourged the Spanish Main,
Farmed farthest oceans and, untimely, fell
To nothingness, tolled by no mourning bell.

Richard Berengarten’s books include: The Blue ButterflyFor the LivingThe ManagerBook With No Back Cover, Imagems (1),  Manual, Notness (Metaphysical Sonnets)Changing, Imagems 2, The Wine Cup, Under Balkan LightBalkan Spaces (essays) and, most recently, with Will Hill, DYAD. His writings have been translated into more than 90 languages. Tributes on his 80th birthday (2023 ) appear here, and he is anthologised on The Poetry Archive. He is a former Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, Bye-Fellow at Downing College, and Academic Advisor at Pembroke College (Cambridge). The Fortnightly Review has published his Ringing the ChangesPoems from ChangingMemoir on Octavio Paz and On the Spirit of Poetry in a Time of Plague, and will publish more of his sonnets in future.


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