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Walter Raleigh, through John Milton, according to William Carlos Williams
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Walter Raleigh, through John Milton, according to William Carlos Williams

The US-American poet, writer, and self-fashioned country doctor William Carlos Williams expressly refers to the also eclectic Walter Raleigh (1552–1619) in two works: in the chapter “Sir Walter Raleigh” in his early collection of historical essays In the American Grain (1925) and in his mid-career lyric “Raleigh Was Right,” published in two typographically different versions, first in 1940 and then in The Wedge (1944). Of significant consequence to Williams’s representations of Raleigh is that he grafts John Milton (1608–74) onto them both times, overtly in the form and voice in the first work; unobtrusively but no less powerfully, through an image and its overriding tone, in the second.1 My aim is to show that Williams’s epitomizing of the figure of a Miltonic Raleigh demonstrates a form of modernism that does not as much radically break from but rather eagerly reconceives of traditional modes of social organization.

Just as Raleigh’s and Milton’s works contributed to the long-awaited emergence of a great English literature in the seventeenth century, Williams worked deliberately to help build a strong US-American literature that finally came into its own in the twentieth century. In the American Grain compiles distinctivelymodulated chapters on American explorers from Norway, Spain, France, England, and the Americas, and in the Raleigh chapter, Williams conveys the epic nature of England’s unexpected and sharp rise in the settlement of the Americas, and consequently in international standing. To provide a new sense rather than a historic account of Raleigh’s chaotic explorations, Williams does not adapt, for example, Raleigh’s historiographer’s voice from his most popular long work History of the World, but rather the much more familiar epic voice of the fiercely British “John Milton, Englishman.”2 When Williams returns to Raleigh, and Milton, again in his [End Page 15] mid-career lyric “Raleigh Was Right,” the conversation still concerns significant national themes and aims. But Williams’s touch is lighter; and his poem joins with theirs in the pastoral mode to create a modernist stance that breaks from traditional form but maintains its concern for civic order, and to attend to the difficulties of defining much less achieving one.

Together, Williams’s two works capture the capaciousness of the Raleigh legend and the arguments it can bear. In In the American Grain, the Miltonic Raleigh represents a formidable, successful European precursor for those etching out a US-American nation and literature. With “Raleigh Was Right,” Williams posits a Raleigh and a Milton—chronological and national Others—as fellow human voices, as he offers one alternative to coming to terms with the bearing that individual acts and limitations have on vast, enduring human needs.

In the American Grain’s Epic Raleigh

Williams’s visionary and revisionary history In the American Grain is a sweeping representation of a slow, painful but necessary dismissal of the transatlantic diaspora by Old World settlers in the New World for the sake of national and eventual universal self-identity.3 The work is a subtle but strong manifesto that sets out to intervene in American cultural formation at the beginning of the twentieth century. That formation is multifarious, which Williams represents by adeptly using multiple voices and allusions. For example, Williams seamlessly weaves word-for-word quotes from Christopher Columbus’s journals into his second chapter “The Discovery of the Indies”; he uses a disjointed narrative voice bordering on Latin-American magical realism for “De Soto and the New World”; and he assumes a frontier voice for “The Discovery of Kentucky,” focused on Daniel Boone. The epic voice of “John Milton, Englishman” for the narrator of the chapter “Sir Walter Raleigh” participates with those other voices in creating a European literary and political vocal system leading to the last two US-American figures of the book, Edgar Allan Poe and Abraham Lincoln. The images of the multiple seeds and eventual flowerings throughout the work powerfully figure hybridity as a desirable telos of American settlement rather than a foisted concession to Old World purity.4 This history is a progressive one: Williams’s mimicking...