Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
Blood must be my body’s balmer,
No other balm will there be given,
Whilst my soul, like a white palmer,
Travels to the land of heaven;
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains;
And there I’ll kiss
The bowl of bliss,
And drink my eternal fill
On every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before,
But after it will ne’er thirst more;
And by the happy blissful way
More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,
That have shook off their gowns of clay,
And go apparelled fresh like me.
I’ll bring them first
To slake their thirst,
And then to taste those nectar suckets,
At the clear wells
Where sweetness dwells,
Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.
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.
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.
Hear Malcolm Guite read the poem
Life is a gift, and there are many who received it yesterday that did not receive it today. We all know that, but very few of us truly meditate on our life’s conclusion. There are exceptions, of course, like the individual with a terminal disease, or as in Walter Raleigh’s case, a condemned man.
Will the end of our pilgrimage on earth find us at peace? The question is one of interiors. It has little to do with circumstances. In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite writes of Walter Raleigh in London’s Tower on the eve of his execution:
One can imagine the mood swings, the dread, the panic, the heart beating, the blood racing, which he would be struggling to overcome and transform in the composition of this quiet poem. And indeed he does so not by evading but by facing the vivid images of blood and beheading that must have been racing through his mind; like most Elizabethans he would have witnessed such executions. So he writes, ‘Blood must be my body’s balmer’, and even more vividly, ‘Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread, set on my soul an everlasting head’. But for all these vivid and visceral moments, the overall tone of the poem is serene and beautiful.
Have you experienced peace in the midst of carnage?
Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
(1554?–1618). Politician and poet, soldier and sailor, explorer and historian, Walter Raleigh exemplifies the many-sided genius demonstrated by a number of notable men and women during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His heroic activities typify the bold imagination and adventurous life of the era. Raleigh’s principal claim to fame, however, rests on his efforts to colonize the New World. His dream of establishing a new England beyond the Atlantic sustained him through years of disappointment.
Raleigh was born at Hayes Barton, Devonshire, in about 1554. In 1569 he went to France, where he fought on the side of the Huguenots (or French Protestants) in that country’s wars of religion. He later attended Oriel College, Oxford, and Middle Temple, a law school in London. In 1580 his participation in the suppression of the Irish rebellion in Munster attracted attention, and soon afterward he was introduced at court, where he became a favorite of Elizabeth I. A famous story about Raleigh tells how he won the queen’s favor by placing his velvet cloak over a muddy spot in her path so that she could walk over it without soiling her shoes.
In July 1603Raleigh was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. After a grossly unfair trial he was condemned to death for conspiring against the king’s life. His gallant bearing turned public opinion in his favor, however, and the death sentence was suspended. During the 13 years he spent as a prisoner in the Tower, his wife and son were often permitted to live with him, and he was visited by many great scholars and poets. He worked on a book, The History of the World, for King James’s son, Prince Henry, whose favor he enjoyed. One volume of this vast project was finished, carrying the narrative only to 130 BC. Raleigh also wrote on political philosophy and was a skillful poet.
In 1616 Raleigh finally persuaded King James to release him so that he might lead an expedition to the Orinoco River of South America, in the heart of Spain’s colonial empire, and bring back gold from a mine he claimed to have discovered. Disobeying the king’s orders, Raleigh’s men fought the Spaniards while he was incapacitated by a severe fever. Raleigh returned empty-handed to face the protests of Spain.
King James, who wanted to remain on good terms with Spain, arrested him once again. Raleigh was executed in 1618 under his old sentence, which had never been revoked. Cheerful and resolute to the last, he asked to see the ax when he was led to the scaffold. Touching the edge, he said, “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a sure cure for all diseases.” Raleigh died on October 29, 1618, in London.
“Raleigh, Walter (1),” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.