Analyse ‘When I Was Fair and Young’

This question came up in last year’s exam (Summer 2014) and thus is not likely to appear next year, but you never know with sneaky exam boards. Click on the spoilers for my explanation of key things to do or include in your essays:

This poem is all about regret and wasted opportunity. Elizabeth I communicates her belief that she has squandered her numerous chances with love through her vanity and pride, but has been left miserable and alone as she has aged and become less desirable.

What should an introduction do?

The first stanza opens immediately with an expression of melancholic nostalgia. Although she tells us about her being ‘fair and young’, which suggests beauty and desirability, the fact she opens with ‘when’ means that she thinks she is no longer either of these things. Thus she immediately establishing she is looking back on her youth, but the implication is that her privilege in terms of status and beauty from the time are a thing of the past. If ‘favour graced’ her then, it would suggests she no longer feels so lucky.

Opening ideas

However, the impression she paints of her youthful self is not all positive. Despite having many suitors, the fact she ‘scorn[ed]’ them all tells us that not only has she turned down these opportunities for love, but that she has crushed and broken hearts with little sympathy. The conclusion of the stanza, that is repeated in each stanza, shows us how contemptibly she treated these people harbouring affection for her as she dismisses them as you would something that is insignificant: ‘Go, go, go’. The repetition emphasises a lack of patience and interest in these individuals and when she asks them not to ‘importune’ her we get the impression she finds the attention boring or bothersome.

Close textual analysis

This is emphasised further in the next stanza as she tells us how many suitors she has not only rejected, but crushed. They ‘pine in woe’ and have ‘sighing hearts’ telling us that she has left them feeling lovesick and miserable. However, Elizabeth ‘prouder grew’ which makes me think that her desirability has gone to her head and made her vain to the extent that she does not even entertain their attentions.

In the third stanza she examines her situation now and we see why she is looking back on her youth unhappily. Her classical allusion to Venus’ son connects us to the idea of the god of love who seems to have been angered by her scornful attitude. The threat to ‘pluck [her] plumes’ conjures the image of a peacock from the natural world and makes us imagine it being stripped of its impressive plumage leaving it ordinary and uninteresting. Clearly this is not what has literally happened to the poet, but rather is a metaphorical expression of the ravages of age. As she grows older her beauty and desirability decline and she feels as if love no longer favours her.

The final stanza is filled with regret for her actions. When she mentions the ‘change’ that ‘grew in [her] breast’ she is talking about her heart suddenly becoming more aware and open to the idea of a romantic relationship. I think this means that Elizabeth only realises what she really wants in her life when she can no longer have it. Before when it seemed like she had no end of choices romantically, she assumed her desirability would last forever, but now there is no one. The fact she ‘repents’ her previous behaviour suggests she is praying for love now, make her seem desperate, a feeling that is further emphasised by the fact she can’t ‘take any rest’ so is up at night worrying about what she is missing out on.

The whole poem expresses regret for her previous actions and contrasts her aloof behaviour with the crushed response from her dismissed suitors. However, the feelings she conveys about her suitors in the words ‘pines in woe’ and ‘sighing heart’ neatly represent how she feels now as she is the one desperate for romantic fulfilment. The regularity of the form of this poem and the repetitive AABB rhyme scheme suggest that her tone is not one of high emotional anguish, but rather calm acceptance that she has missed her chance of romance and happiness, which is presented as the hubris for her behaviour in youth.

The anything else paragraph

So this poem takes us on a journey through Elizabeth I’s romantic experience. Initially she reflects upon her pride and arrogance in the face of a hoard of suitors, but quickly we see how regret creeps into her heart as age ravages her looks and leaves her undesirable and feeling alone. Ironically once she realises that she wants romantic love it is too late and she is left in a state of melancholy acceptance that she will never experience what her heart now desires more than anything else.

5 thoughts on “Analyse ‘When I Was Fair and Young’

  1. What I thought was that when analysing a poem you have too talk extensively on the structure ,language,imagery,rhyme and rhythm ,tone and mood …but how come this analysis has only the content …can you get a good grade with this ???? …please answer ASAP …tanx

    • Hi Kaybest,

      No, you don’t have to extensively talk about all those elements. First and foremost you have to answer the question set and should do so by analysing all the ways the poem creates the particular meaning you are examining. There is absolutely no point mentioning rhyme scheme and structure just to explain what it is, only if you can relate the structure and rhyme to the meaning of the poem.


      Mr Sir

  2. Firstly this is an amazing effort. Thank you so much for putting up this example essay…really really helpful indeed!!
    Now there are two things I need to ask. First, you said “introduction is all about showing control” so can we do this that always start our essay by giving and elaborating the main theme of the poem? As this will give an overall view of the poem and also tell the examiner that we are aware of its central idea.
    Secondly when you said “Notice that every time I am explaining the poem I am basing my ideas around one or more significant quotations.”, does that mean we are suppose to LEARN important lines of the poems and if so how many are they suppose to be approximately?:-!

    • Found it!

      First question – showing control means taking charge of the question. You may get a tricky question that doesn’t quite fit the ideas or your interpretation of a poem, but you can shift the question if you’re careful using your introduction. So, if a question says ‘How does Spenser uses imagery to describe human emotion in Sonnet 54?’ and you’re not sure you can ramble on for an hour about it, then you need to guide your examiner. I’d maybe begin ‘In Sonnet 54 Spenser uses imagery to demonstrate the transience and impermanence of life, but counters this with his belief that his art, poetry, is able to transcend life and achieve immortality and thus preserve his love for all eternity, demonstrating how powerful his affections are.’ I hope this makes sense, but it is just using the introduction to tell the examiner what needs to be covered (and coincidentally exactly what you will cover :D) in your essay.

      Second question – Yes! It is a good idea to have four or five key questions from each of the poems you’d be happy to discuss in a comparison question. These don’t need to be whole lines, in fact it is usually better if you can boil it down to the significant word or phrase. If I was commenting on ‘When I Was Fair and Young’ I’d want to have things like ‘scorn’d’, ‘pine in woe’, ‘pluck… plumes’ because they help with my interpretation of the poem. Notice how short and succinct they are. You put them into context, explain and analyse them to guide the examiner through the significance of the poem.

      How many is a tricky question. Try to write them all down in your notes and keep going over them. Undoubtedly you won’t remember them all, but if you’ve got 4-5 stuck in your head to use, then you’ll be happy. For ones you forget, use as direct a reference as you can manage: e.g ‘Elizabeth I compares herself to a peacock when she was admired by a wide selection of suitors, but ages is metaphorically viewed as the gods punishing her for her cruelty by pulling out her feathers and leaving her in tatters. This signifies…’

      Apologies for the delay!

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