This poem is about someone having to hide their true emotions, as Queen Elizabeth hides her unhappiness at being unable to marry a potential suitor. However, can also be perceived to be more generally about someone in a role of great responsibility having to act and behave in a manner contrary to their own heart.
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 suppressed.
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.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
By now, if you’ve no idea who Elizabeth I is then you’re screwed. All of this section of Songs of Ourselves is composed in her reign and we’ve already looked at a couple of her poems.
This poem is elsewhere entitled On Monsieur’s Departure and is widely believed to have been composed after negotiations to marry a French prince, Francis, Duke of Anjou, broke down. She knew he’d be one of her last suitors as she was 46 and even though he was just 24 he was the only suitor she actually got to know.
The idea wasn’t very popular in England and she was forced to call the whole thing off – the English have never been fond of the French and he was a Catholic to boot!
Poor Elizabeth. This poem deals with regret, duty and forlorn love. She regrets that she is not able to pursue her personal desires as a result of her commitment to her duties as a leader and as a result she never gets a chance to truly love.
The opening stanza begins with huge contrasts between her internal emotions and her public display. She ‘grieves’ and ‘loves’, but is forced to show her subjects that she is not upset even feels ‘forced to seem to hate’. She feels she has to react this way to please her subjects. Elizabeth is clearly struggling with these two personas she has to maintain: her private feelings and how she must present herself as a Queen. ‘I am and not’ maybe suggests she feels like she is her own person, but also is never allowed to be because of her duty.
Now we move on to her constant grief and suffering. Her ‘care’ could be interpreted two ways: first, it may refer to her worries and sadness and is personified as a relentless stalker, ‘my shadow’, that ‘stands and lies’ with her at all times, but at no time can she address it as it ‘flies when [she] pursue[s] it’.
It could also be used to mean her carefulness or duty over her kingdom. In this interpretation, the ‘shadow’ comparison means that her duty is inescapable and follows her in all aspects of her life.
With either understanding, the final couplet of the stanza leaves us with a clear idea of how upset she is as she is unable to ‘rid him from [her] breast’ and the only way she will be free is at ‘the end of things’ or when she dies.
In the final stanza she wishes that she could feel less emotionally. ‘Gentler passion’ suggests she wants less intense feelings of regret or passion and her self comparison to ‘melting snow’ demonstrates she gets hurt easily. Lines 3-4 of this stanza are amazing; she wants love to ‘be more cruel’ to ‘be kind’ because if she never felt love or mutual affection she wouldn’t have to deal with the crushing pain when it was not realised and then ‘Let me… float or sink, be high or low’ is a wonderfully prosaic way of begging for one thing or the other: let me experience love (float/high) or not (sink/low), rather than having hope of romance and love only for it to be dashed and crush her.
She even goes so far as to wish for either life and love or for death so she can ‘forget what love ere meant’ suggesting she’d rather die now than face a lifetime of never realising the happiness of love.
Language and techniques
The big thing here is to highlight the contrasts. Her private persona and her public persona are completely at odds – ‘grieve’, ‘love’, ‘do’, ‘prate’ (chatter) are opposites of her public reaction of indifferent silence. Here she demonstrates the conflicts between self and duty – as Queen she is in effect two different people whose thoughts and dreams are at odds with each other.
I’ve already talked about the two interpretations of the second stanza, but I’d make sure to mention how oppressive her cares are, personified to acting like a ‘shadow’ and stalking her, and the fact that she believed that only ‘by the end of things it be suppressed’, which suggests she feels like she’ll never escape this conflict. A suggestions echoed in the third stanza.
Those four lines at the end of stanza three are magnificent and you need to dive into them. Whichever part you pick, you are looking at a fragile woman begging for the chance to either experience the intensity of real love or to be unburden with any stirrings of emotions at all: ‘Let me or float or sink’.
The regularity of this poem reflects the tone of calm sorrow and lamentation. It is written in iambic pentameter throughout so is read at the same pace throughout. The use of caesuras throughout means the poem the pace seems melancholic and in the first stanza causes the reader to linger on her inner emotions of misery and regret.
The final couplets in each stanza are a way of Elizabeth summing up her feelings. First, she ‘freeze[s] and yet [is] burned’, being unable to expression her emotion and yet being stung by it all the same. In the second and third, she talks of death as being the only relief from duty or the pain of not being able to pursue love.
Extremely sorrowful and it is designed to make us sympathise with her. She wants us to know that she has never been allowed to be herself and has sacrificed her personal life for the sake of duty.