Sir Walter Ralegh to the Queen

by Sir Walter Ralegh

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Themes and Meanings

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“Sir Walter Ralegh to the Queen” is an anatomy of love—its central theme is the difference between true love and false love: False love is hidden in a swirl of superficial verbiage; true love is painfully silent. Ralegh’s argument follows traditional Renaissance themes and conventions. For instance, he emphasizes the traditional Elizabethan view of humankind as torn between passion and reason, emphasizing that his passion would lead him to write love poems (complaints), and praise the queen’s saintly perfection, beauty, and glory in order to win her affection or at least to entertain her. In contrast to despairing lovelorn poetic narrators (such as Sir Thomas Wyatt in “Whoso list to hunt”), he has let reason dominate for the queen’s sake. Revealing his affection openly would not only be indiscreet and subject to misinterpretation, given her high rank and the fact that so many others are also charmed by her, but would also be a denial of the depth of his true affection, which, like deep waters, is so strong that he must be silent. Another poetic convention of courtiers is exaggerated praise of the beloved, who here is acknowledged to be beyond the reach of mortals.

The poem’s themes of secret love, of the despairing, agonizing lover, and of a potential for misunderstanding or public injury recur in Ralegh’s poetry. They seem in keeping with Ralegh’s ongoing poetic dialogue with his queen, although some modern commentators have attempted to attribute this poem to Sir Robert Ayton rather than to Ralegh. Inevitably, in such a poem, private meaning related to the daily personal conversations between the queen and her favorite would lie behind the public utterance, especially given Ralegh and the queen’s love of theatrics and their long history of public performance of their interacting life roles. In “See those sweet eyes,” for example, Ralegh expresses a similar sentiment and situation—the lover gazing on the “sweetest eyes” is unable to plead his case and praise his beloved’s beauty because her greatness, her inexpressible merit, and his sense of duty force him into silence.

The uncertain chronology of the poem in terms of Ralegh’s relationship with the queen leaves critics uncertain about the precise vicissitudes of Ralegh’s career—whether he was in or out of favor—at the time this poem was written. What is known is that the poem was written to serve the needs of Ralegh’s career and it fuses personal feeling with conventional arguments. Ralegh thus turns his life into art.

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