The Poetry of Queen Elizabeth I
by Lisa D. Sampson
Queen Elizabeth I wrote poems, as did many others at the Tudor court. While her verse was more cerebral than say, the poems and sonnets of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, these poets were quite a bit younger than she and wrote from a sensibility grounded in the tawdriness of “real life.”
The Queen’s poems were cool abstractions, yet they were every bit as erudite and meticulous as her younger contemporaries’ work. You couldn’t say, however, that her poetry is every bit as lasting or as great.
Form was all in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and poetry was rarely written in the vernacular. Poets, all writers really, were held to a very high standard. They knew and were expected to know the difference between Cicero and Seneca. Rhetoric and logic were subjects of regular study. Poets learned technique by copying the works, or imitating the style of their Roman and Greek forbears and in this way learned versification.
Elizabeth Tudor by the age of 12 (about 1545) had presented her father, Henry VIII, with a gift book, a trilingual translation from Latin. It was not poetry, but a book of meditations and prayers owned by Katherine Parr, Elizabeth’s stepmother. The source of the New Year’s gift was Thomas A Kempis’ Imitatio Christi, according to the Collected Works volume.
From the time Elizabeth took the throne in 1558, she wrote dozens, if not hundreds, of speeches and prayers as well as a few poems that were acclaimed at court. As a young woman, about 1554-55, she had written two verses inscribed on the windows while she was banished to Woodstock. Here, follows one of the two:
Written on a Window Frame at Woodstock
O Fortune, thy wresting, wavering state
Hath fraught with cares my troubled wit
Whose witness this present prison late
Could bear, where once was joy flown quite.
Thou causedst the guilty to be loosed.
These versicles, as she would have called them, are included in at least two fairly recent scholarly books devoted to Elizabeth’s work. The first, The Poems of Elizabeth I (Brown University, 1964) edited by Leicester Bradner, was preceded only by one other work of its kind which appeared in 1892—a mere 300 years removed from the Queen’s life and times, and nearly 100 years removed from Bradner’s.
Clearly, Elizabeth’s poetry was not a “hot topic” among scholars of Tudor literature.
Bradner’s book devotes one section of his book to Poems of “Undoubted Authorship.” The other two sections are “Poems of Doubtful Authorship” and “Verse Translations.”
In 2000, University of Chicago Press published Elizabeth I: Collected Works, edited by Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose. They look at all of her known writing, including speeches and prayers, chronologically dividing the whole of the work into specific periods.
Both books unequivocally state that much of the poetry once attributed to Queen Elizabeth alone was, in fact, written collaboratively. As Bradner states, she may have contributed to some poems that were in large part composed by someone else.
Commentary in the Collected Works volume corroborates Bradner, but both agree that a few of those
poems are hers alone. They are not stylistically grounded in the people, scenes and objects of “real life,” and they tend to” tell” rather than “show.” They are anything but direct and are characterized by a kind of nervous tension. So it’s important to read closely and spend time with her poems to discover the Queen’s meaning and intent.
Biographers have told us that Elizabeth was a passionate woman who regularly lost her temper, played favorites, and carried on love affairs that everybody knew about, although she had resolved not to marry and remain a virgin. Even so, her public persona was more of a presentation than a personality—regal, controlled, commanding. In her creative writing, on the other hand, she ever so subtly uncovers love, anger, sorrow, even jealousy. In fact it is possible to discover in these poems a restrained writer who even in youth managed to hammer down pure feeling into a rational, if frosty, construction that would adequately present her royal world view.
“The Doubt of Future Foes” another poem she wrote about the fear and consternation she felt when imprisoned by her half-sister, Mary. Here are the first four lines of “The Doubt of Future Foes:”
The doubt of future foes exiles my present joy,
And wit me warns to shun such snares as threaten mine annoy;
For falsehood now doth flow, and subjects’ faith doth ebb,
Which should not be if reason ruled or wisdom weaved the web.
At first reading, the object of her poem seems impenetrable as it keeps such a distance between reader and writer, yet when one dares to read in close, she softens everything by telling us exactly how she feels. For example, it takes a lot to get past that first phrase: “the doubt of future foes” which “exiles” the poet’s joy.
Yet, if we dwell a moment on that, it isn’t too much of a leap to the emotional reward of “my present joy”—a phrase everyone can understand. Connecting with that one tiny bit of passion, we can further comprehend that doubt and paranoia have made it impossible for this poet to hold on to her happiness for very long. At the end of those initial lines four lines, however, we are given a kind of emotional rationality and are left with a rather complicated impression.
And, who wouldn’t be complicated after all Elizabeth had endured before ascending to the throne? Before the age of 12, she was banished from court by her own father (Henry VIII). When she was incarcerated around 1554-55, by her own sister, Mary, at Woodstock, Elizabeth used a diamond to carve lines on a window and on a wall. That she had the poet’s impulse is clear, yet most would agree that she was not a fine poet.
If Elizabeth ever wrote a love poem, it is the one reproduced here. There are questions as to whether she wrote the whole poem herself, or if someone else was involved in the writing, although, according to Bradner, the style and tone of the verses are not in keeping with the image that the Queen would normally have wanted to project. Conjecture has also arisen as to whether Elizabeth intended this poem for Sir Walter Raleigh or for the Duke of Anjou who visited England to see if Elizabeth would make a good match as his wife.
“On Monsieur’s Departure”
I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.
My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have doen.
His too familiar care doth make me rue it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest.
Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.
Her translations of Boethius, Petrarch, Seneca and others are fully discussed in both Bradner and the Collected Works, but Bradner reproduces all of the poems attributed to Elizabeth, which is useful for those who want to read only the poems and are not interested in the detailed textual analysis of the Collected Works volume.
Finally, artifice marked all of Elizabeth’s writing and if it wasn’t up to the standard of great art, some of it was artful. Most poets today would never attempt the convoluted syntax and obscure diction that marks Elizabeth’s poems.
With April ushering in its annual celebration of poetry, perhaps this is the time to look past the great lady we see in the portraits and gaze long into her soul by tasting a little of her poetry, but be warned, you won’t find the Queen’s work an easy read.