Literature

The Best Poems Written by Queen Elizabeth I

The Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) inspired some of the greatest poetry of the age: Edmund Spenser immortalised her as Gloriana in his vast unfinished Arthurian epic, The Faerie Queene. But Queen Elizabeth I was also a gifted poet herself, who left behind a handful of fine lyrics. Below, we introduce and provide the text for some of Queen Bess’s best poems.

‘On Monsieur’s Departure’. Written using a stanza form and rhyme scheme which had been used by, among others, one of Elizabeth’s own prisoners as he awaited execution, this poem is thought to have been inspired by the breakdown of marriage negotiations between Queen Elizabeth I and Francis, Duke of Anjou. The final stanza of the poem offers a precursor to the ‘cruel to be kind’ sentiment that Hamlet also expresses in Shakespeare’s play.

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 done.
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.

‘Ah, Silly Pug, Wert Thou So Sore Afraid’. This poem was inspired by Sir Walter Raleigh – ‘my Wat’ – who was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites at court. But when Elizabeth appointed the Earl of Essex, her young new favourite, to a high position at court, Raleigh petitioned the Queen, worried that he was falling out of favour with her. In this poem, Elizabeth deftly seeks to reassure the great explorer of his place in her affections.

Ah, silly Pug, wert thou so sore afraid?
Mourn not, my Wat, nor be thou so dismayed.
It passeth fickle Fortune’s power and skill
To force my heart to think thee any ill.
No Fortune base, thou sayest, shall alter thee?
And may so blind a witch so conquer me?
No, no, my Pug, though Fortune were not blind,
Assure thyself she could not rule my mind.
Fortune, I know, sometimes doth conquer kings,
And rules and reigns on earth and earthly things,
But never think Fortune can bear the sway
If virtue watch, and will her not obey.
Ne chose I thee by fickle Fortune’s rede,
Ne she shall force me alter with such speed
But if to try this mistress’ jest with thee.
Pull up thy heart, suppress thy brackish tears,
Torment thee not, but put away thy fears.
Dead to all joys and living unto woe,
Slain quite by her that ne’er gave wise men blow,
Revive again and live without all dread,
The less afraid, the better thou shalt speed.

‘When I Was Fair and Young’. This poem sees Elizabeth ruing the fact that, when she was young and beautiful and many men sought her hand in marriage, she shooed them all away. Venus, the goddess of love, annoyed that Elizabeth was refusing to entertain any of her suitors, took away her beauty (‘plumes’ suggesting the beautiful feathers of a bird).

When I was fair and young, then favor graced me.
Of many was I sought their mistress for to be.
But I did scorn them all and answered them therefore:
Go, go, go, seek some other where; importune me no more.

How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe,
How many sighing hearts I have not skill to show,
But I the prouder grew and still this spake therefore:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

Then spake fair Venus’ son, that proud victorious boy,
Saying: You dainty dame, for that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes as you shall say no more:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

As soon as he had said, such change grew in my breast
That neither night nor day I could take any rest.
Wherefore I did repent that I had said before:
Go, go, go, seek some other where, importune me no more.

‘The Doubt of Future Foes’. Here’s a gem of a poem: written by an English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, about a Scottish monarch, Mary Queen of Scots. There were a number of Catholic conspiracies to unseat Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne of England, and this poem reflects these attempts to replace Elizabeth’s Protestant reign with Mary’s Catholic one.

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.
But clouds of joys untried do cloak aspiring minds,
Which turn to rain of late repent by changed course of winds.
The top of hope supposed the root upreared shall be,
And fruitless all their grafted guile, as shortly ye shall see.
The dazzled eyes with pride, which great ambition blinds,
Shall be unsealed by worthy wights whose foresight falsehood finds.
The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow
Shall reap no gain where former rule still peace hath taught to know.
No foreign banished wight shall anchor in this port;
Our realm brooks not seditious sects, let them elsewhere resort.
My rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change or gape for future joy.

‘In Defiance of Fortune’. As well as the longer lyrics provided above, Queen Elizabeth I also wrote a number of short, pithy poems, such as the following rhyming couplet about fortune and virtue:

Never think you fortune can bear the sway
Where virtue’s force can cause her to obey.

‘Written with a Diamond on her Window at Woodstock’. Between 1554 and 1558, while Elizabeth’s Roman Catholic half-sister Mary was on the throne, the then-princess Elizabeth was kept at Woodstock Palace. While there, the young princess, viewed with suspicion by her Catholic queen and sibling, penned this three-line verse on the window of her chamber:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

‘Written in her French Psalter’. As the website Luminarium informs us, a young Elizabeth inscribed these lines when she presented the psalter to a servant or friend at some point before her accession to the English throne in 1558. Short but sharp.

No crooked leg, no bleared eye,
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As is the inward suspicious mind.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

3 Comments

  1. Elizabeth was amazing. She spoke several languages, wrote poems, was good at music, and that’s on top of running the country at an incredibly difficult time.

  2. Oh wow! I knew she was clever and talented – and had heard the first poem before, but not the others. Thank you so very much for sharing!

  3. QEI is my go to gal for Renaissance woman.

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