Written sometime between 1581 and 1587, “Sir Walter Ralegh to the Queen,” a thirty-eight-line lyrical poem in five stanzas, directly addresses Queen Elizabeth I of England. The queen has perhaps criticized Ralegh’s failure to write love poems for her recently as indicative of his lack of affection or passion. His poem is meant to refute such criticism and to explain that his love is indeed true and unwavering despite his poetic silence. His organizing idea is the difference between true love and false love—with his love being true and others’ love false.
His initial image compares human passions to “floods and streams” to argue that shallow passions, like shallow streams, “murmur,” while deep passions, like deep floods of water, remain silent because of their natures. His conclusion on the basis of this analogy is that those who speak or write much about their inner feelings of affection in reality feel no such affection. If they are very verbal and outspoken about their emotions (“rich in words”), they will be lacking in the deeper affections characteristic of a lover and will be incompetent in the true art of love (“poor in that which makes a lover”). The second stanza applies the general rule to the particular case and asks the Queen, whom Ralegh praises as the “dear Empress” or ruler of his heart, not to misunderstand the value and nature of true passion. He asks her not to think that he feels no pain at her silence or their separation just because he does not beg her to be more compassionate and to take pity on his sad state. Instead, his silence is indicative of the depths of his genuine regard. Furthermore, if he does not write love poems complaining that she misunderstands how deeply her beauty has conquered his heart, the cause is not from any absence of love on his part but from “excess of duty” or a sense of obligation to her as queen.
The third stanza explains further. Ralegh says that because he knows that he seeks to serve a perfect saint, whose returned affection all desire but none deserve, he chooses to endure pain and grief rather than reveal his feelings. His strong, passionate feelings would compel him to write love poems to her, but because she is too high above him in rank, status, and perfection, and in fact too high above all other potential human lovers, discretion, reason, and devotion make him choose to be her suitor from afar, to love in silence. This silence, he argues, betokens a deeper sorrow at the distance that separates them than words could. Though words might be wittier, they would be more superficial. As a “beggar” who cannot speak, he argues that he deserves more pity than those who openly complain about their lovelorn state. His final appeal is for the queen, his “dearest heart,” not to misread his secret passion, a passion he swears is true. Ultimately, he asks for her compassion for the deep pain he hides at the same time that he asserts that he asks for no compassion. (The psychological game is like that employed in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, claiming not to be doing something while doing something.) Thus, in a poem that is a love complaint, Ralegh claims not to be writing love complaints out of courtesy and love for his queen. He claims that silent suffering is more indicative of love than writing a poem in which he presents himself as the silent sufferer.
Forms and Devices
Scholarly debate has questioned whether “Sir Walter Ralegh to the Queen” (sometimes called “The Silent Lover” or “To the Queen”) is truly a five-stanza poem or two poems merged: “Sir Walter to the Queen” (one stanza) and “Wrong not, Dear Empress of my Heart” (four stanzas). Certainly, the first stanza differs in form from the last four. It contains four lines with alternating end rhyme (abab) and then a concluding couplet (cc ), all in iambic pentameter. The remaining four stanzas have eight lines each, an alternating rhyme that changes sound sets after the first four...
(The entire section is 1,139 words.)