Summary and Analysis

On Monsieur's Departure cover image

“On Monsieur’s Departure” is a short lyric often attributed in seventeenth-century manuscripts to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The title given to the poem in these sources suggests that it may have been written by the queen in response to the departure from England, in 1582, of the French Duke of Anjou, with whom she had been discussing possible marriage. Some editors are confident that the poem really is Elizabeth’s; others are less certain. Because the poem’s biographical and political contexts are somewhat ambiguous, it seems best to treat the work here simply as a poem, focusing mainly on its artistry. Certainly it is a kind of poem that was quite common in the sixteenth century. This is particularly true because of its “Petrarchan” phrasing.

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) was an enormously influential Italian poet who was known in England as “Petrarch.” In his widely read sequence of poems about love, titled the Rime Sparse (that is, “scattered rhymes”), Petrarch presents an unnamed male speaker who is infatuated with a beautiful woman named Laura. Laura never requites the speaker’s desires, and so the tone of the poems is often filled with frustration and despair. The language of the poems, and of the many later poems influenced by Petrarch, is therefore often brimming with paradoxes. “Petrarchan” lovers are often simultaneously hot and cold, hopeful and depressed, excited and lethargic, and so on. “On Monsieur’s Departure” is clearly influenced by this Petrarchan tradition, as the opening stanza in particular makes abundantly clear.

The constant repetition of the word I at the beginning of the poem’s first five lines (a kind of initial repetition known as anaphora) helps emphasize the speaker’s obsession with her own feelings. She seems highly emotional, yet part of her frustration is that she cannot openly express her emotions, except on paper in this poem, but this way seems to strike her as far too private. Part of the paradox of the opening stanza, then, is that she feels silenced, even as she vents her feelings quite emphatically in this poem—a poem, however, that probably never circulated very widely at the time it was written. The speaker feels weak and impotent (she feels “forced” to behave in certain ways [2] and she “dare[s] not” behave in others [1, 3]), yet the poem itself seems a response to that enforced impotence, since rhetorically it is quite forceful. Yet, to twist the sense of paradox up yet another notch, this rhetorically forceful poem probably had a very small audience (perhaps no reader beyond its author) when it was first composed. The speaker (assuming that she is to be identified with Elizabeth) probably had no audience other than herself when she initially wrote the work.

Part of the work’s power results from the bare simplicity of its language. Most of its words, especially in the crucial first stanza (which sets the tone for the rest of the text) are monosyllables, and the rhythm is strongly iambic (in which odd syllables are unaccented and even syllables are accented, as here: “I grieve and dare not show my...

(The entire section is 1312 words.)