The pilgrimage of a 17th century disciple

As Lent gets underway I’ve been reading in British poet Malcolm Guite’s collection Word in the Wilderness: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter.
I can take or leave Guite’s own poems.  The value in the book, for me, is the collection of much older poems he has collected, and offered his reflections on.
This extract is from Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage” –  “passionate having multiple meanings here – written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London early in the 17th century.  The first part of the poem is the pilgrim’s preparation and journey.  The second part strikes me as particularly apt for Lent.  Our hope is in Christ “the king’s attorney” who, black and numerous as our sin is, yet places his death between our sin and its just reward.  By his death, as Raleigh succinctly puts it, we live.
And when our bottles and all we
Are fill’d with immortality,
Then the holy paths we’ll travel,
Strew’d with rubies thick as gravel,
Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,
High walls of coral, and pearl bowers.
 From thence to heaven’s bribeless hall
Where no corrupted voices brawl,
No conscience molten into gold,
Nor forg’d accusers bought and sold,
No cause deferr’d, nor vain-spent journey,
For there Christ is the king’s attorney,
Who pleads for all without degrees,
And he hath angels, but no fees.
When the grand twelve million jury
Of our sins and sinful fury,
’Gainst our souls black verdicts give,
Christ pleads his death, and then we live
The poem is thought by some scholars to have been written just days before his death.  I’ don’t know if there is independent evidence for that suggestion, but the content of the final section seems not inconsistent.  I’ve highlighted the particular sentences.
Be thou my speaker, taintless pleader,
Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder,
Thou movest salvation even for alms,
Not with a bribed lawyer’s palms.
And this is my eternal plea
To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,
Seeing my flesh must die so soon,
And want a head to dine next noon,
Just at the stroke when my veins start and spread,
Set on my soul an everlasting head.
Then am I ready, like a palmer fit,
To tread those blest paths which before I writ.
It used to be that one of the aspirations of Christians was to “make a good death”.   The certainty of death hasn’t changed in intervening years, and yet it hardly appears at all in church services or much Christian teaching.  I reckon we are poorer for that, knowing that it is something all of us must one day face.
We can’t see into Raleigh’s heart, and yet in his written word he left us a testimony to faith, hope, and discipleship –  though the way be rough –  which speaks of a steadfast hope in Christ, his only Lord and saviour.  Would that it were more widely known today.


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2 responses to “The pilgrimage of a 17th century disciple

  1. Minsk

    I commend to you Foxe’s Martyrs. It fell out of favour for a century or two, but it’s valued as a secondary source these days. Makes you grateful you do not, as the Chinese curse goes “live in interesting times”.


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