When I Was Fair And Young

 Overview

Oh, bless Queen Elizabeth. She may have been the ruler of one of the most prominent countries in the world and may continue to be almost universally revered by the British, but she seems to have suffered a pretty miserable and intolerable private life if we follow the three poems she composed in this selection.

This poem is all about aging and the death of her desirability. When she was young she enjoyed being a bit of a heart breaker turning down all sorts of suitors in quite a nasty way; now, she’s a bit older and not quite so pretty and she misses the days when the boys were banging down her door (not a naughty metaphor… she’s the virgin queen, remember).


When I was fair and young, and favour graced me,
Of many was I sought their mistress for to be.
But I did scorn them all, and said to them therefore:
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere; 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 otherwhere; importune me no more.’

Then spake fair Venus’s son, that brave 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 otherwhere; 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 otherwhere; importune me no more.’

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

She’s got three poems in this selection and, in case you hadn’t worked it out, was the Queen of England; not just that, but she is one of the most celebrated queens in English history… although I think I prefer Mary, victors write history so I am in the minority.

One of the things she is most famous for is her virginity. Despite many offers and many suitors over the years she never married for a number of reasons: the English were heavily suspicious of foreigners, particularly as if she married a foreign King he may have authority over her; if she married a local lord there would be uproar as she’s be favouring one family over another; and if she married someone from another faith there would be renewed conflict as England had crisscrossed from Catholic to Protestant (Henry VIII, her dad) from Protestant to Catholic (Mary I, her half sister) and then back again with Elizabeth. Marriage to the Spanish King, Phillip, was one of the sore points about her half-sisters reign as people thought the Spanish were enemies and they had undue influence in the running of England.

Anyway, this meant she never married and that was probably the best thing for stability in the country. However, this poem is an expression of her personal feelings about never having been in love and about how with age the realisation of loneliness and desire for a relationship grew on her.

 Themes

The main idea here is about regret/mortality/time. This is about feeling time has passed her by and taken opportunity from her, but it is also about dying or growing old and how it changes one’s relationship with others and the world.

Content

At the beginning of this poem we get the idea that Elizabeth was a bit of a bitch and far too snooty for her own good.

She tells her that she used to have many suitors, but she ‘scorned’ them, meaning that she almost rejoiced in their suffering and pain or was mean in the face of the affection. This impression is intensified in the second stanza when she considers ‘how many’ ‘weeping eyes’ and ‘sighing hearts’ she has caused. These images conjure sympathy for her suitors and the fact she doesn’t even remember how many there are also increases the idea of her as being uncaring and emotionally careless. In the face of their misery she ‘grew prouder’ which implies she actually enjoyed playing the role of heartbreaker and celebrated how aloof she acted towards them.

In the third stanza everything changes. Venus’s son, if you hadn’t worked it out, is Cupid and therefore she is personifying love as the mythical Roman God and he seems to have become annoyed with Elizabeth’s attitude to love and hurting all these poor suitors. He ‘plucks [her] plumes’, which are feathers, and makes her not quite so desirable. What is really happening is that she is aging and is no longer quite the desirable beauty of her youth.

Once this happens she begins to regret her former attitude. She liked the attention and in the last stanza we see she is consumed with desire and is repenting her previous actions and wishing she’d not been so dismissive of all her suitors.

Language and techniques

Things to talk about:

The title is a good place to start. The poem is a reminiscence as we are remembering when Elizabeth was ‘fair and young’, which associates youth with beauty and suggests that this also led to her being ‘graced’ with ‘favour’.

The repetitive last line of each stanza also uses repetition to emphasises how dismissive Elizabeth was with her suitors. ‘Go, go, go’ really sends a clear message that they are bothering her and combines with her ‘scorn’ to paint a not so pretty picture.

Make sure you mention the rhetorical questions (that don’t have question marks) that highlight the vast number of spurned suitors at the beginning of the second stanza.

Now we’ve got the really interesting imagery to deal with. Love is personified, as it often is, as Cupid who is called a ‘brave victorious boy’ and doesn’t take too kindly to Elizabeth’s attitude to it. Love is vicious and decides to ‘pluck [her] plumes’, which conjures an image of a peacock or some other bird with beautiful tail feathers being forcefully and painfully stripped of its most wonderful feature. This simply means she is losing her beauty as a result of aging, but she feels like this is some sort of karma for her former attitude.

In the final stanza why not talk about the fact a ‘change grew in her breast’, which shows the physical impact of the loss of affection or the feeling of being desirability. This is made even more acute when she claims she can’t get any ‘rest’, so is so distressed she cannot even sleep.

Structure

This is a ballad that tells us a story of Elizabeth’s youth through to her middle age.

The main things to comment on would be the use of repetition in the final line of each stanza and how it changes in meaning as we progress through her life: from arrogant, to vain, to a warning, to misery and repentance.

Also, look at the use of caesuras throughout. The pace is slow and deliberately at a pace where we are forced to reflective about her past.

Tone

This is a remorse filled and deeply sad poem in my view. The knowledge of the opportunity rich past being behind her is difficult for her to take and it sounds like she is struggling to come to terms with the fact her life is destined to be lived alone until the end.

 

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

14 thoughts on “When I Was Fair And Young”

  1. Excellent work as always. One correction though, under the language and techniques section you meant to refer to ‘brave victorious boy,’ not ‘proud victorious.’

    I’m not sure if such an error could cost marks in the exam though.

    1. Ah right, will change it now. A little mistake like that would likely go unpunished by an examiner, even if they noticed it.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

    1. I love it, my wife hates me saying it, but it is like literature sudokus. However, much more rewarding and the meanings end us be so individually tailored for you depending on your perspective that it helps you have insights about your own life.

  2. Venus’ son is cupid . Is she meaning the victorious boy cupid ? . Or the boy is someone a norml guy ? . Or its the cupid who has taken a boy’s appearance to make her feel guilty and to punish her for her sins she made . Please answer me . I find this whole website good . Thanks mr.sir . Please reply as soon as possible .

    1. Yeah, when she refers to Venus’ son that is Cupid. Cupid is then also described as a ‘brave victorious boy’. Basically Cupid has decided to punish her because she has been tormenting men who have declared their love for her. Why has he decided to do this? Well, probably because he feels that it is not her place to do so, Cupid is traditionally the one who goes around causing everyone heartache by making sure that love never runs smooth.

      Hope this helps, thanks for reading,

      Mr Sir

  3. I have a doubt to clarify. Okay, regarding the last two stanzas. Can we also associate that Elizabeth may have had her heartbroken since the ‘brave victorious boy’ taught her a lesson; to fall in love? it could not only be the Cupid. who knows?

    1. Could be. I think this is less likely to be a specific incident though and more likely to be a general sense of regret that she’s wasted her opportunities to experience a genuine love affair thanks to her youthful vanity.

    2. It says Venus’ son, so obviously it must be Cupid. Well, I would advise you to stick to Cupid only as we don’t have any proof.

  4. The line “such change grew in my breast” is referring to the “change of feelings which took place in her heart” right? I am unable to get that line of yours about “physical impact of the loss of affection…..” in the last paragraph of language and techniques and what I wrote above is what I can make of it. Please correct me if I am wrong?

    1. Correct. Isn’t that a physical change? Her heart is literally aching with regret now as she’s passed up all chances and now is left longing for love!

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