Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1312
“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...
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“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  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 discontent”). A poem with more elaborate diction, more pretentious or pompous phrasing, would not be nearly as powerful as this one is. If the poem was indeed written by the queen, it not only shows her deep familiarity with Petrarchan rhetoric but also demonstrates her willingness to express herself in the kind of language that was quite current at the time. If the poem had not been given its current title and attributed to Elizabeth, it might have been written by almost anyone living in the 1500s.
To say that the poem is highly conventional, however, is by no means to say that it lacks particularly interesting and skillful phrasing. Notice, for instance, how the first line opens with the dark phrase “I grieve,” whereas the second line opens with the more positive phrase “I love.” Thus, not only are individual lines brimming with reversals, but sometimes so are the transitions from one line to the next. Line 3, for example, begins by emphasizing action (“I do”), whereas line 4 begins by emphasizing the opposite of action (“I seem stark mute”). A less skillful writer might have written a poem far more literally monotonous than this work.
Sometimes the phrasing is relatively leisurely and lengthy (as in line 1); at other times, however, it so brief as to seem abrupt, as in the opening of line 5: “I am and [am] not.” Surely part of the pleasure this poem must have given its author, and part of the pleasure it still gives its readers, is the pleasure of seeing new life breathed into old conventions—of seeing a traditional challenge tackled effectively.
One particularly intriguing line is line 6: “Since from myself another self I turned.” Normally in Petrarchan poems, the speaker is frustrated because he has been turned away by a virtuous lady. But in this poem, especially in lines such as 2, 3 and 6, the speaker implies that she does love the person she turns away—the person she is “forced to seem to hate.” This clear departure from convention contributes to the poem’s originality and strengthens the argument for assuming that the speaker may be identified with Elizabeth. The speaker does seem to be a woman (as lines 10 and 11 apparently imply), and in that respect, the poem achieves a great degree of originality and distinction simply because it seems to be a Petrarchan poem with a female speaker. Such poems were relatively rare. This poem gives us a chance to see Renaissance courtship from a woman’s point of view, and for that reason alone, it would be intriguing, even if its author were not the queen.
The second stanza reveals the author’s ability to build and sustain a “conceit,” that is, an extended metaphor, developed over several lines. Here the metaphor compares the speaker’s “care” to a “shadow” (7)—a comparison elaborated, in a variety of ways, over at least three lines (7-9) and possibly in a fourth as well (10). By line 11, it is not at all clear that the speaker is still referring to her shadow as if that shadow were a male:
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be supprest. (11-12)
Perhaps the word him here refers to the shadow, but that word may also refer to the beloved male for whom the speaker seems to pine. Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate.
In any case, the paradoxical language and the clever individual structures of lines continue in this second stanza. Thus the shadow is said both to stand and to lie (9), and the speaker also says that it “Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it” (8)—a line structured by a device known as chiasmus, or a crisscross arrangement, which in this case reveals a pattern of verb/pronoun/verb || verb/pronoun/verb. Once more, the poet demonstrates her rhetorical talent—talent that would definitely have been noticed, and appreciated, by the educated audience for whom she was primarily writing.
In stanza 3, the speaker turns from self-description to a kind of plea or prayer. The paradoxical phrasing continues (especially in lines 15-18), and there seems to be an obligatory reference to Cupid (“love”) in line 15. By line 18, however, the word love now seems to refer to the feeling, not the mythical god. And, in a final touch of subtle artistry, the rhyme words that end stanza 1 are precisely the same rhyme words that end stanza 3. This technique gives the conclusion a strong sense of completion; it is as if the poem has now come full circle. However this poem may or may not have been read in light of biographical contexts and political events, it would certainly have been admired by many of its initial readers as a skillful work of art.