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The "Delicious" Land
America acted deeply on the Elizabethan English imagination, working its magic in the minds of poets and men of science
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
The theme is extended in the scenes that Chapman, Raleigh’s poet, contributed to Ben Jonson and John Marston’s Eastward Ho! The absurd Sir Petronel Flash’s money is bestowed on a ship bound for Virginia. Security comments: “We have too few such knight adventurers: who would not sell away competent certainties to purchase, with any danger, excellent uncertainties?” This was precisely what many did for Virginia, and New England too. Seagull helps with a lot of mariners’ tales about Virginia to gull the public. “Come, boys,” he says, “Virginia longs till we share the rest of her maidenhead.” That was a regular phrase with the voyagers—Raleigh’s phrase for Guiana.
On this Spendall asks: “Why, is she inhabited already with any English?” Seagull: “A whole country of English is there, man, bred of those that were left there in “79.” (Actually the date was ’87; but we do not go to dramatists for dates any more than to historians for dramatics.) “They have married with the Indians and make ’em bring forth as beautiful faces as any we have in England, and therefore the Indians are so in love with ’em that all the treasure they have they lay at their feet.” Scapethrift: “But is there such treasure there, captain, as I have heard?” Seagull: “I tell thee, gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us; and for as much red copper as I can bring, I’ll have thrice the weight in gold. Why, man, all their dripping pans and their chamber pots are pure gold; and all the chains with which they chain up their streets are massy gold; all the prisoners they take are fettered in gold; and for rubies and diamonds they go forth on holidays and gather ’em by the seashore…” Scapethrift asks, “And is it a pleasant country withal?” Captain Seagull replies: “As ever the sun shined on: temperate and full of all sorts of excellent viands.”
These leads—Spenser, Marlowe, Chapman—all point to Raleigh, as they were all his friends; he stands at the crossroads in literature, as he did in these actions. The captains he sent to reconnoiter Virginia in 1584 reported as follows:
The second of July we found shoal water, where we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kind of odoriferous flowers, by which we were assured that the land could not be far distant … We viewed the land about us, being, whereas we first landed, very sandy and low towards the water’s side, but so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them; of which we found such plenty, as well on every little shrub as also climbing towards the tops of high cedars that I think in all the world the like abundance is not to be found. Under the bank or hill whereon we stood, we beheld the valleys replenished with goodly cedar trees.
In the poem Raleigh was writing some years later to recover the Queen’s favor (but never finished), Cynthia, the Lady of the Sea , we read:
And when we come to Drayton’s ode, “To the Virginian Voyage,” we find:
Of the motives that could lead men to leave home Raleigh speaks, in his own case:
And he sums them all up in one famous line:
There was a whole succession of literary men who went as officials to Virginia: William Strachey, John Pory, Christopher Davison, George Sandys. Donne, who was hard up before he condescended to enter the Church, sought to be made secretary. Strachey, a Cambridge man, moved in a literary and dramatic circle in London. He was a shareholder in the Children of the Queen’s Revels and so came to Blackfriars two or three times a week, where he would meet Shakespeare. In 1609 he went out with Gates and Somers in the Sea Venture , which was famously wrecked on Bermuda, though all were saved and spent an agreeable winter there. The extraordinary happening made a strong impression on people’s minds at home, and several accounts of it appeared, the most detailed being Strachey’s letter to a noble lady, which circulated in manuscript. It is not surprising that the most impressionable mind in that circle was struck by it, for this was the germ of The Tempest .