Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)