The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

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.

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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.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

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 lines (ababcdcd), and iambic tetrameter. However, the stanzas are unified by imagery and argument, and major Ralegh specialists argue that they belong together. Lines 1, 3, and 5 of the first stanza have variations on the iambic meter, lines 3 and 4 are enjambed, and the couplet has a feminine rhyme; such variations recur throughout the remaining stanzas.

Ralegh rhymes “prove” with “love” and “utter” with “suitor,” sounds that no longer rhyme in English but that did in Renaissance England. The word “Plaints” is a shortened form of “Complaints” and refers to a special convention of love poetry—the love complaint, in which the lover complains about ill treatment at the hands of an indifferent or uncaring lover, all to win her pity and compassion and perhaps an admission of returned affection. Ralegh must be cautious here because his audience is not a real lover or even a would-be lover but the queen, on whom his fortune depends, and his poem, though privately passed around a limited court circle, was nonetheless a public statement, not an intimate, private communication.

As a literate and unmarried queen, Elizabeth enjoyed playing the witty game of love through poetry as a way to bind her courtiers to her. As a court favorite who had many enemies, Ralegh had to move between flattery and witty gamesmanship—he had to flatter, entertain, and win the queen’s favor and support. The poem depends on a central image to make its argument: passions compared to floods and streams that can sweep one up in their power. Shallow, noisy streams of little force are contrasted with deep, silent channels of force and power. This comparison was a standard Renaissance image. Sir Edward Dyer’s “The lowest trees have tops,” for example, similarly asserts, “Where waters smoothest run, deep are the fords,” and “True hearts have ears and eyes, no tongues to speak,” while Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (I,127) notes, “Shallow brooks murmur most, deep silent slide away.” The watery nature of the image would be connected with the Renaissance idea of the four humors that control human behavior—in this case emphasizing blood, which would motivate the lover and cause passion to overwhelm reason. It would also wittily play with the queen’s nickname for Ralegh. Others called him simply “Wat,” but she called him her “Water,” since he sailed the seas winning booty and new lands for her. Ralegh plays his own variations on the water image and theme, managing to have things two ways: He asserts his passion in the image of deep, powerful waters but also his reason, which makes him do what duty and discretion demand rather than yield to personal feelings of love that would be presumptuous, given the difference in status between his beloved and himself.

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Themes