Tag Archives: refrain

Odd poem: ‘When I Was Fair and Young’, by Queen Elizabeth I

When I was fair and young, and favour gracèd me,
Of many I was sought, their mistress for to be;
But I did scorn them all, and answered them therefore,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

How many weeping eyes I made to pine with woe,
How many sighing hearts, I have no skill to show;
Yet I the prouder grew, and answered them therefore,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

Then spake fair Venus’ son, that proud victorious boy,
And said, ‘Fine Dame, since that you be so coy,
I will so pluck your plumes that you shall say no more,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

When he had spake these words, such change grew in my breast
That neither night nor day since that, I could take any rest.
Then lo, I did repent that I had said before,
‘Go, go, go, seek some otherwhere,
Importune me no more!’

Elizabeth (Ms. Tudor, if you prefer) was born in 1533 and became Queen of England at age 25, in 1558. This poem dates from some three or four years later, and the painting above is from the same time. Given how youthful she looks in her late 20s, the poem may be more playful than self-pitying–but she was also well past the age that sex and marriage would have been expected. As it was she had had to lead an extremely careful life: England was weak and unstable when she came to the throne: her father Henry VIII had broken with the Pope and formed the Church of England; her older sister Mary, on becoming Queen, had turned the country back to Catholicism and Elizabeth had narrowly escaped death as a traitor; Elizabeth inherited a country where people were burnt at the stake for not being of the correct faith… but the correct faith kept changing.

By her late 20s the Court was trying hard to have her married to a powerful European monarch to strengthen the country by alliance. The Catholic Philip II of Spain was one possiblity, the Lutheran Erik XIV of Sweden was another. Again, everything involved a religious balancing act. Meanwhile flattering portraits showing vitality and power were created and exchanged as part of the negotiations–and Elizabeth sent her court painter to Sweden to paint Erik. But for whatever reason she never married. In 1588 Philip attempted a full scale invasion with his Armada, but that failed as well. Elizabeth died in 1603 aged almost 70, still nicknamed (though probably unfairly) ‘the Virgin Queen’.

Regarding the poem: technically, the first three lines of each stanza are in iambic hexameter and are followed by an uneven refrain. The first two lines rhyme, and the third rhymes with the end of the refrain. It looks very singable. There is some unevenness in the scansion, and Elizabeth has marked the midpoint of most of the hexameters with a comma; this divides the line into two natural clauses or parts, and also signals a little pause for the sake of smooth reading–particularly useful in the shortened second line of the third stanza and the lengthened second line of the fourth.

Photo: Painting of Elizabeth I in 1562, probably painted by her court artist Steven van der Meulen, or his workshop.