The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)