When I Was Fair And Young – Analysis & Explanation

When I Was Fair And Young

Queen Elizabeth I

 Background

– Queen Elizabeth I rose to power after the death of her father, King Henry XIII. Even as a young girl, she was faced with many struggles that she had no choice but to overcome. Her rise to the throne was tumultuous, and she faced much opposition. Her reign brought about the advancement of the Protestant faith. Her 45-year reign was declared the Golden Age as England significantly expanded its overseas trade, and the arts flourished with the discovery of much talent such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Tallis, and Byrd. Outwardly, Queen Elizabeth was ruthless and very brave; she strategically eliminated each and every individual with a strong claim to the throne, and maintained her image of a strong, unshakeable woman. In the Tudor times, poetry was for the upper class, while the lower class appreciated drama. Poetry was also a means of expression in which one told all in an extremely blatant manner – no subtle innuendos or euphemisms. Queen Elizabeth’s tight personality did not allow for any emotion, as this would immediately be seen as a feminine weakness. Her only outlet was poetry, which she wrote in secret. This was discovered after her death, and painted a very different picture of who she was.

 

Structure & Tone

– This poem is made up of a set of four quatrains, however unlike the classic ABAB quatrain, these quatrains have an AABB rhyme scheme, and each quatrain is composed of two couplets. This couplet-oriented structure adds a sense of simplicity to the poem, which reflects how basic and deep her pain is.

– The tone of this poem is one of regret, ruefulness, and nostalgia, fuelled by intense loneliness.

– The poem also seems to move in a deliberately slow pace, forcing the reader to reflect on her and her character.

 

Line-by-line explanation

Line 1: “When I was fair and young, and favour graced me”

–        The word “was” immediately reflects her nostalgia and longing for the past

–        The word “favour” not only stands for her good looks (she was very vain) but also the blessed life that she was born into

Line 2: “Of many was I sought their mistress for to be”

–        In this line, she establishes that she was desired, and that she had power over many members of the opposite sex

Line 3: “But I did scorn them all, and said to them therefore:”

–        The word “scorn” carries a negative connotation, and thus seems to point to the manner of her rejection

Line 4: “Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere; importune me no more.”

–        The repetition of the word “go” seems to reflect disdain coupled with a sense of superiority

–        The repetition also seems to carry a sense of frenzied weariness, as though she is uncertain as to whether her suitors desire her, or her position

Line 5: “How many weeping eyes I made to pine in woe;”

–        The use of the word “weeping” suggests a certain sincerity, but whether this is Elizabeth reassuring herself, or merely stating a fact, is open to discussion

–        The word “made” lends a tone of pride to the line

–        This line seems to reflect the fact that in her youth, she was so cruel to many, and now she is suffering for that very cruelty

Line 6: “How many sighing hearts I have not the skill to show,”

–        This line is similar to the previous one, and she reiterates that there were many suitors that approached her

Line 7: “But I the prouder grew, and still this spake therefore:”

–        This line seems to paint a sudden, yet somehow strangely vivid, picture of a young Elizabeth – she reveled in the power she had over men, and enjoyed it with youthful disdain for the feelings of those she rejected.

–        It also describes Elizabeth looking back on her younger self and regretting her past actions

Line 8: “Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere; importune me no more”

–        This line, in this case, has the same connotation as it did in the previous stanza

–        However, in combination with the previous line, it also points to the young queen’s pride and free-spiritedness, which would not allow anything – including another person’s love – to control her.

Line 9: “Then spake fair Venus’ son, that brave victorious boy,”

–        Venus’ son is Cupid, the god of love, who causes people to fall in love

–        Personifies the love that has struck her

–        The words “brave” and “victorious” seem to indicate that he was so even when it involved Elizabeth – The Virgin Queen, as she christened herself

Line 10: “Saying: ‘You dainty dame, for that you be so coy,”

–        This line is particularly mocking

–        The word “dainty”, in this case, means particular and choosy

–        “Coy” points to Elizabeth’s flirtatious nature, and tells the reader how unwilling she was to commit to a relationship

Line 11: “I will so pluck your plumes as you shall say no more”

–        “Pluck your plumes” means that Cupid will remove all her embellishments and her finery – her royalty, her bravery, her harshness, and strip her down to her most basic form – a woman, with desires and passion

–        It could also stand for Elizabeth losing her good looks and her “favour”, and with it, perhaps, the opportunity to scorn suitors

–        Cupid seems to be promising her that she will fall in love, and then not know what to do

Line 12: “Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere; importune me no more”

–        This stanza is the first in which Elizabeth herself does not directly speak the line

–        Cupid almost seems to be warning her – there is a sense of foreshadowing in this line

Line 13: “As soon as he had said, such change grew in my breast”

–        She tells the reader of how suddenly she fell in love

Line 14: “That neither night nor day I could take any rest.”

–        This line, along with the previous one tells the reader that at the end, it was not Elizabeth, but Cupid who had the last laugh

–        This line indicates her passionate nature – love took her over wholly and completely

–        Her inability to control her own emotions is thanks to a wholly outward force

Line 15: “Wherefore I did repent that I had said before:”

–        She is now seeing that her past actions have come to full circle

–        She is now struck by what she scorned – love

Line 16: “Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere; importune me no more.”

–        The fact that the line is repeated from the beginning to the end is very interesting. In each stanza it carries a different tone, and its repetition seems to be symbolic of the fact that it is these very words that resulted in her unhappiness.

–        In this stanza, the words carry a sense of regret, and sorrow for what might have been. They also seem to echo mockingly, but unlike the previous stanza, it is not Cupid who is mocking her, it is the younger Elizabeth.

 

Analysis

– This poem can be interpreted as a regretful journey down memory lane for a formerly beautiful and much sought-after queen who is now beginning to realize that she may never have the opportunity to love and be loved as most women do. Elizabeth was a female ruler in a man’s world, and had to be doubly careful to never put a foot wrong, as this would be seen as a sign of her weakness. Therefore, Elizabeth could never speak of her sadness to anyone, and she had few close friends. Poetry was her only outlet, and her poems – of which there are three in this year’s selection – are brutally honest and open her emotions and her deepest thoughts to the reader. It is possible that the love she speaks of in two of three poems is Robert Dudley, The 1st Earl of Leicester, who was one of her few and closest friends.

 

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