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When I Was Fair and Young by Queen Elizabeth I

“When I Was Fair and Young” is a Renaissance poem written by the most famous Queen of England Elizabeth I. Whether Elizabeth wrote this poem or not is still a question. But, scholars attribute this piece to her along with her other poem “Ah, silly pug”. In this poem, the poet laments the changing scenarios of her life. The first time she encountered love she foolishly abstained from giving her heart to fit suitors. After a while, when she realized the importance of love, probably being struck by Cupid’s infamous arrow, she repented for being too defensive in the matters of love.

  • Read the full text of “When I Was Fair and Young” here with the analysis section.
Analysis of When I Was Fair and Young by Queen Elizabeth I


Summary

In “When I Was Fair and Young” by Queen Elizabeth I, the poetic persona talks about her youth and how she had several suitors. She did not accept anyone’s request due to her pride or fear of losing her virginity. Possibly, she might have been in love with someone else. When others sought her hand, she rejected their appeal and told them to go away and find another woman.

She had made several men weep in longing for her. Besides, she does not have good poetic skills to show their “sighing hearts” in her verse. However, when she was young, she scorned their feelings for her.

Lately, when her heart was struck by Cupid’s golden arrow, her heart grew impatient for love. She realized what she did with others was coming back to her. The same pain grew stronger in her heart. After reaching past her youthful hours, she now repents for rejecting several men who loved her.

Meaning

The title of the poem is like any other Renaissance poetry. Elizabeth uses the first part of the opening line as the title. It presents readers with a scenario. She alludes to her youth when she looked both gorgeous and young. The law of attraction was at work then. Her youthful beauty gripped several eyes. But, she was so proud of herself that she could not help rejecting all of their appeals. The poetic persona portrays how she scorned men and somehow wanted to protect her virginity. As days went on, then came a moment when her emotions enthralled her proud heart. She understood the importance of love. This transition in her thought process is reflected in the last two stanzas of the poem.

Structure & Form

“When I Was Fair and Young” consists of four quatrains or four-line stanzas. Each stanza has the AABB rhyme scheme. It means every two lines form a rhyming couplet. This rhyme scheme is followed throughout the poem. For example, in the first quatrain, the rhyming pairs of words are “me” and “be”, and “therefore” and “more”.

Regarding the form, it is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker, probably the poet Elizabeth. She uses the pronoun “I” in order to express her thoughts. Hence, it is a lyric poem with a musical verse structure.

The overall poem is composed in iambic hexameter. While the last line of each stanza is in iambic heptameter. This line begins with a spondee as well. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza in order to have an overall idea of the poem’s metrical scheme.

When I/ was fair/ and young,/ then fa-/vor grac/-ed me.

Of ma/-ny was/ I sought/ their mis/-tress for/ to be.

But I/ did scorn/ them all/ and an/-swered them/ there-fore:

Go, go,/ go, seek/ some o/-ther where;/ im-por/-tune me/ no more.


Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Elizabeth uses the following literary devices in “When I Was Fair and Young”.

  • Personification: It occurs in “then favor graced me”. Here, “favor”, an abstract idea, is personified.
  • Hyperbaton: The normal order of sentences is reversed throughout the piece. This device, also known as inversion, typically occurs in several poems of the Elizabethan era. For example, it occurs in “Of many was I sought their mistress for to be” and “But I the prouder grew”, etc.
  • Repetition: In the first two stanzas, there is a fair number of repetitions of the pronoun “I”. This repetition reflects the speaker’s self-pride.
  • Refrain: The poet uses the refrain of the line “Go, go, go, seek some other where; importune me no more” at the end of each stanza. This creates a musical effect as well as describes the poet’s carelessness for others’ feelings.
  • Palilogy: In the refrain, the phrase “Go, go, go” contains a palilogy.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “them therefore”, “Go, go, go”, “seek some”, “me no more”, “skill to show”, “dainty dame”, “pluck your plumes”, “neither night”, etc.
  • Anaphora: This device occurs in the first two lines of the second stanza. These lines begin with the phrase “Hoe many”.
  • Synecdoche: The phrases “weeping eyes” and “sighing hearts” contain the use of synecdoche. Here, the poet refers to the lovers rejected by her.
  • Allusion: There is an allusion to Cupid in the phrase “fair Venus’ son”.
  • Metaphor: In the line “I will so pluck your plumes …” the poet compares herself to a bird. Her pride or virginity is compared to the plumage of a bird.
  • Irony: The poet uses situational irony in “Wherefore I did repent that I had said before”.


Themes

In “When I Was Fair and Young”, Elizabeth explores a number of themes that include pride, virginity, change, love and withdrawal, youth, and aging. The main idea of the poem revolves around the theme of changing scenarios of a woman’s life. In her youth, the poet had several admirers. She willfully rejected all of them. As she grew older her physical beauty tried to fade. It naturally decreased her appeal to men who seek dames with lustrous eyes. The turn of events of her life made her repent for her follies. Apart from that, the poet also explores the theme of excessive pride in oneself in the first two stanzas. While in the following stanzas, she presents the themes of change and aging.

Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis

Lines 1-4

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.

Queen Elizabeth I’s poem “When I Was Fair and Young” can be interpreted at two levels. Firstly readers can appreciate the text by analyzing the textual details, not diving deep into the historical aspect. On the other hand, they can analyze the text by using historical details available about the poet’s love life. By using the former method, they can find out the objective qualities of the poem. The next method helps them to understand what the poet really meant to say by writing this piece.

In the very first line, the poetic persona brings home her point rhetorically. She says how “favor” graced her when she was fair and young. Here, “favor” is personified. It is also a reference to men who preferred her over other women due to her unique beauty. So, she was graced with admiration by men.

Several suitors sought her as their mistress. The term “mistress” was quite interesting in the Renaissance period. If a woman was someone’s mistress, it meant she was under the total control of her master. The speaker did not want to be anyone’s control. She knew she was about to become the Queen of England. How could any royal lady stoop far below her level? So, it was the first impediment to starting a relationship. She had to be cautious while selecting her partner.

It was not the only reason that she rejected her suitors. She was too proud of herself, most importantly of her virginity. So, she scorned all those who tried to woo her and answered them to seek someone else who could be a right match for them. She was quite frustrated with the number of proposals she was receiving at that time. It is evident in the phrase “importune me no more” that means “hey, don’t annoy me”.

Lines 5-8

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.

The second stanza of “When I Was Fair and Young” begins with the use of anaphora. Elizabeth uses a similar sentence pattern in the first two lines. It is used to achieve an artistic effect. The tone of these two lines is ambiguous. It seems the speaker is sad for the pain she caused to her lovers. But, it also seems she is boasting about the number of hearts she has broken or colonized with her looks.

Whatsoever, her passivity made several men suffer. She ironically says that she does not fit expressions to paint their woes in her poem. Does she really mean what she says? The answer is “No”. It is a rhetorical way of exaggerating the events that occurred in her youth. She does so in order to emphasize how many admirers she had.

No matter how women try to portray themselves to others, if they are courted by several men, it naturally boosts their ego. The same applies to men. In the speaker’s case, the more suitors she got the more proud she grew. So, this time, not she but her excessively proud self replied to the lovers, “Go and find someone else, don’t linger around me.”

It is important to note the repetition of the word “Go” at the beginning of the refrain. It reflects a sense of egotism, carelessness, and passivity. For her, rejecting men without caring about their feelings was not a great deal.

Lines 9-12

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.

From this section, the situation starts to change. In the first line of this section, the poet alludes to the mythological goddess of love, Venus, and her son Cupid, the god of desire and eroticism. According to her, “that proud victorious boy” planted the seed of love in her heart. It stirred the deeper feelings she was unaware of. So, in this battle of restraining herself from exploring the erotic feelings, Cupid was victorious.

He tried to teach a lesson to the “dainty dame”, a reference to the poet herself. As she was too coy, Cupid plucked the “plumes” of her heart. Here, the poet compares herself to a bird. The plumes of a bird protect its inner parts. Likewise, self-restraint protects oneself from physicality. It can also be a reference to her chastity and pride.

It was not the mythological god Cupid who was solely responsible for the change that was happening with the speaker. Rather it is a natural process. None can abstain oneself from the most precious feeling of the universe, love. The speaker realized what love felt like when she herself pined for a man she could not have.

From this section, the poem starts to become interesting. This line brings up a number of questions in readers’ minds. What actually happened with Elizabeth that brought about that mental change? If readers dive deeper, they can find the name of Robert Dudley deeply embedded in her life’s story. He was the person whom the poet loved and admired but could not be with for the rest of her life due to political reasons.

Lines 13-16

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.

In the last stanza of “When I Was Fair and Young”, the poet further hints at the changes that took place in her heart. Her love for Dudley was responsible for bringing about these changes. She could sleep neither at night nor in the day for the desire of being with him. In simple words, she was madly in love with him. Whether Cupid was responsible for it is still a question.

Previously she scornfully told others to go away and not to disturb her. But, when she realized the importance of being with a person who could soothe her heart, she repented her mistakes. She would have found a perfect match if she was not too selfish and egotistical.

Now, she sadly laments for rejecting men without any reason, just for satisfying her ego. If she would have sensed that her love for Dudley might prove fruitless, she could find another person who would love her truly. Right now, it is too late to look back as she has grown older. Her youthful beauty has faded away.

Tone

The tone of “When I Was Fair and Young” does not remain constant throughout. For instance, in the first two stanzas, the tone is boastful, hyperbolic, proud, and nostalgic. The poet nostalgically reminds of her youth when she was courted by a number of men. She takes pride in her past and hyperbolically describes how it felt being surrounded by suitors. While in the last two stanzas, the tone takes a major turn. The proud tone of the poet changes to a mere meek, sad, and repenting one. In these stanzas, the speaker reveals the turn of events as she grew older. The third stanza where she holds Cupid responsible for the changes contains a vengeful tone.

Imagery

Elizabeth uses several types of imagery in this poem that include:

  • Organic Imagery: Throughout the piece, the poet uses this type of imagery in order to portray her internal feelings. Her sense of pride is reflected in the line “Of many was I sought their mistress for to be”. She expresses her mental suffering in the line “That neither night nor day I could take any rest”. In these examples, she makes use of organic imagery to convey her pride and grief to readers.
  • Visual Imagery: In the first two lines of the second stanza, Elizabeth uses visual imagery. It is present in “weeping eyes” and “sighing hearts”. Here, the poet presents imagery of crying and sighing.
  • Tactile Imagery: It is used in the line “I will so pluck your plumes as you shall say no more”. Here, the sensation of plucking the feathers from a bird’s skin is portrayed.


Syntax & Diction

The syntax and diction of Elizabeth’s poem “When I Was Fair and Young” adheres to the convention of Renaissance poetry. Let’s have at the features of sentences and the use of specific terms that are meant for achieving a poetic effect.

  • In the second line “Of many was I sought their mistress for to be”, the regular order of words is replaced for the sake of rhyming and metrical scheme. It is also a rhetorical device known as an inversion that is often used in poetry.
  • The refrain “Go, go, go, seek some other where; importune me no more”, Elizabeth repeats similar sounds and words in order to make this line sound more appealing to readers.
  • The usage of the term “spake” instead of “speak” is an example of archaic diction.
  • The long lines of the poem reflect the poet’s state of mind. Such long lines are used while a speaker is thoughtful or trapped down memory lane. Here, the syntax of lines portrays the speaker’s sense of longing.


Historical Context

Queen Elizabeth I probably wrote “When I Was Fair and Young” somewhere around 1560. Scholars are not sure about whether Elizabeth penned down the poem or not. However, from the description provided in the text, it can be assumed that she might have written this poem. In the spring of 1559, the year of Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation, it became clear that she was in love with her childhood friend Robert Dudley. There were several suitors who wanted to marry her. But, she abstained.

Dudley was already a married man. His wife was suffering from a malady and died in 1560. After her death, Elizabeth found it fit to marry Dudley. But her counselors proscribed her to marry Dudley as would lead to political turmoil inside the country. The relationship between Dudley and Elizabeth did not progress further. However, Elizabeth kept her love for Dudley alive until her death though she could not marry him.

From her biographical details, it can be assumed that “When I Was Fair and Young” was written in 1560. At that time, she was undergoing a similar crisis as the speaker of the poem goes through after being avenged by Cupid. This piece does not explicitly reveal anyone’s identity or historical details. But, after reading the text alongside the poet’s biography, we can presume that the following details were omitted by Elizabeth.

Omitted Details in “When I Was Fair and Young”

  • Firstly, the poet did not reveal her identity at the time of publishing the poem. She knew the person she loved could get her message. But she did not want to reveal her identity to a broader audience as it might damage her reputation as a queen. The nobility or her beloved subjects would not see her in a favorable aura if she disclosed publicly that she loved a married man.
  • Secondly, the speaker of the poem appears to be a disinterested and cold woman in matters of love. If we look at the events occurring in Elizabeth’s life during 1559, she was courted by several foreign suitors. For her love for Dudley, she could not accept their proposal. She could not even reject them openly as it might cause harm to her foreign policies. Therefore, instead of revealing her feelings for Dudley, she projected herself as a cold and disinterested woman.
  • Being a ruler was not an easy job. Elizabeth did not want anyone to know about her affair with Dudley. So, instead of revealing her love for him, she held Cupid responsible for her sadness and restlessness.


FAQs

What is the poem “When I Was Fair and Young” about?

Queen Elizabeth I’s poem “When I Was Fair and Young” is about a speaker who was courted by several men when she was young. She rejected them all for her excessive pride in herself. Later, being avenged by Cupid for her coyness, she grew restless. She realized the importance of love but she could not find a suitor as she was old.

Who wrote the poem “When I Was Fair and Young”?

The authorship of the poem is debated. “When I Was Fair and Young” and “Ah, silly pug” are two poems from the Renaissance period that have doubtful authorship. Critics are of the view that Queen Elizabeth I might have penned down these poems.

What does “sighing hearts” mean?

The phrase “sighing hearts” contains the use of synecdoche. Naturally, hearts do not sigh. It is a reference to the lovers who sighed after being rejected by the speaker. The poet portrays their hearts as sighing figuratively.

What does “I made to pine in woe” mean?

Through this line, Elizabeth says that she made her suitors pine for her hand. She rejected them and it made them sorrowful.

What is the tone of “When I Was Fair and Young” by Queen Elizabeth?

The tone of this poem is nostalgic, sad, and ironic. To read about the tone of each section of the poem, refer to the Tone section.

What is the meaning of “When I Was Fair and Young”?

The title of the poem refers to the poet’s youth when she was both fair and young. It sets the tone and mood of the piece from the very beginning. Refer to the Meaning section in order to know about the overall meaning of the poem.


Similar Poems about Love & Heartbreak

  • “The Nightingale” by Sir Philip Sidney — In this poem, Sidney describes how a nightingale’s song increases the pain of a lovelorn speaker’s heart.
  • “Sita” by Toru Dutt — This piece explores the sad story of the Hindu mythological goddess Sita.
  • “Is My Team Ploughing” by A. E. Housman — This piece describes how a dead man longs for his beloved and wants to know whether she is sad after his death.


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