From King Arthur to Queen Elizabeth II, monarchs have often been eulogised and discussed in verse down the centuries. Both fictional kings and queens, and very real rulers, have been commemorated (and occasionally mocked) in English poetry since at least the days of Anglo-Saxon verse. In this post, we gather together, and introduce, some of the most noteworthy poems about monarchy, kings, queens, and the royal family.
1. Anonymous, ‘The Death of King Edgar’.
In this year ended all the earthly joys
Of King Edgar of England, who chose the light
Of another life, radiant and rewarding …
This song of mourning for the peaceful Anglo-Saxon king Edgar is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Dating from over 1,000 years ago, the poem tells of the various disasters that befall England following Edgar’s death, including a famine. Sadly, the poem – in either its original Old English or a modern translation – isn’t available in full online, but we’ve quoted a modern translation of its first few lines to give you a sense of the poem. It’s worth seeking out in anthologies of Anglo-Saxon writing.
2. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene.
High above all a cloth of State was spred,
And a rich throne, as bright as sunny day,
On which there sate most brave embellished
With royall robes and gorgeous array,
A mayden Queene, that shone as Titans ray,
In glistring gold, and peerelesse pretious stone:
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As envying her selfe, that too exceeding shone …
This is not just a poem but a vast epic poem, stretching to over 1,000 pages (and it was unfinished – the projected whole poem would have been twice as long!). The poem, written in the 1590s, is a Christian allegory featuring a cast of knights, maidens, villains, monsters (the Blatant Beast – whence we get our word ‘blatant’ – is but one example), wizards, and princes. And running though it all, we have Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, who represents Elizabeth herself.
3. Queen Elizabeth I, ‘When I Was Fair and Young’.
Now we’ve had a poem about Queen Elizabeth I written by one of her subjects, how about a poem written by the Queen herself, about herself? After all, Queen Elizabeth I was also a gifted poet herself, who left behind a handful of fine lyrics. This poem sees the Virgin Queen herself 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 …
4. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ‘A Satyre on Charles II’.
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown …
WARNING: this poem contains many naughty swear words! This is one of several poems John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80) wrote about his king, Charles II (reigned 1660-85), to whom Rochester was well-known: indeed, Rochester was one of Nell Gwyn’s lovers before the King took her as his mistress. However, when Rochester satirised Charles and his court in this 1673 poem, he was exiled for a time.
5. Percy Shelley, ‘Queen Mab’.
Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl,
And stop obedient to the reins of light;
These the Queen of Spells drew in;
She spread a charm around the spot,
And, leaning graceful from the ethereal car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid …
This long philosophical poem, written when Shelley was in his early twenties, takes its title from a figure mentioned in Romeo and Juliet. Often described as a revolutionary poem, ‘Queen Mab’ is actually more subtle than this label implies, and sees Shelley advocating for gradual social change so that people can move towards creating the perfect society.
6. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Morte d’Arthur’.
So all day long the noise of battle roll’d
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur’s table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur …
Tennyson would write numerous poems based on Arthurian legend, culminating in his vast blank-verse epic Idylls of the King, although his earlier, shorter (though still substantial) poem ‘Morte d’Arthur’ offers a great way into Tennyson’s Arthurian world and is a good point of departure for an analysis of Tennyson’s engagement with Arthuriana.
7. Christina Rossetti, ‘The Queen of Hearts’.
Christina Rossetti (1830-94) was one of the Victorian era’s greatest and most influential poets. She was the younger sister (by two years) of the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She composed her first poem while still a very young girl; she dictated it to her mother. It ran simply: ‘Cecilia never went to school / Without her gladiator.’ Goblin Market and Other Poems was the first collection of her poetry to be published, and it was the book that brought her to public attention. She went on to influence a range of later poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ford Madox Ford, and Elizabeth Jennings. Philip Larkin was an admirer, praising her ‘steely stoicism’.
As the Shelley poem above demonstrates, queens, of course, can be symbolic as well as actual – such as in the Queen of Hearts who features in a pack of playing cards. Here, Rossetti (1830-94) offers us a love poem using the Queen of Hearts as a symbol. The speaker is always unlucky in love; her friend Flora has all the luck. The poem begins:
How comes it, Flora, that, whenever we
Play cards together, you invariably,
However the pack parts,
Still hold the Queen of Hearts?
I’ve scanned you with a scrutinizing gaze,
Resolved to fathom these your secret ways:
But, sift them as I will,
Your ways are secret still.
I cut and shuffle; shuffle, cut, again;
But all my cutting, shuffling, proves in vain:
Vain hope, vain forethought too;
The Queen still falls to you …
8. Emily Dickinson, ‘A Mien to Move a Queen’.
A Mien to move a Queen—
Half Child—Half Heroine—
An Orleans in the Eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler Company
When none are near
Even a Tear—
Its frequent Visitor—
Just how many good poems did Emily Dickinson write? Just when you think you’ve read all of her greatest poems, you find another – as we did, when we discovered this gem while researching for this post. This poem is somewhat riddling in its details, although ‘Orleans’ and the reference to a ‘heroine’ summons Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. However, the queenly demeanour of the woman described in the poem could also be a self-portrait of Dickinson herself.
9. Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Bells and Queen Victoria’.
Here is more gain than Gloriana guessed –
Then Gloriana guessed or Indies bring –
Then golden Indies bring. A Queen confessed –
A Queen confessed that crowned her people King …
Published in 1911, this patriotic poem may be unfashionable by today’s standards, but the poem shows how Queen Victoria’s importance and legacy was still a major part of Britain’s identity even a decade after her death and almost 75 years after she’d first come to the throne.
10. Ruth Stacey, ‘Elizabeth II’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best poems about kings and queens with a contemporary poem about the present monarch of Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth II. Stacey asks, ‘what does it mean to be a Queen?’ After rejecting other people’s words about monarchy and queenship, Stacey goes on to give her own answer.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
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What about: ‘They’re changing guards at Buckingham Palace’?
I love the fact that Charles II got over that and Rochester was effectively forgiven. Most monarchs would have chopped the head off anyone who wrote a poem like that!