On Monsieur’s Departure
By Queen Elizabeth I (?)
I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate*.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.
My care is like my shadow in the sun,
Follows me flying, flies when I pursue it,
Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done.
His too familiar care doth make me rue* it.
No means I find to rid him from my breast,
Till by the end of things it be suppressed.
Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or* float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love e’er* meant.
*prate = chatter *rue = regret *or = either *e’er = ever
“On Monsieur’s Departure”, discovered in a 17th-century manuscript, is generally attributed to Queen Elizabeth I, who wrote a number of poems alongside her speeches and letters. There remains some debate as to whether the queen really did write this particular poem, but, if she did, this poem may change many of our perspectives regarding the virgin queen. It has been dated to 1582, the year in which the marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and the French duke of Anjou fell through, and essentially tells the tale of the narrator’s heartbreak. They feel as though they have lost their identity by losing “his too familiar care” and don’t know how they will carry on without him.
If it really was Elizabeth who wrote this, then this poem reveals that the queen really did, at one point, intend to marry, and that she was a far more passionate queen than evidence may suggest.
The title of “On Monsieur’s Departure” played a very important role in estimating the time in which the poem was written, as it illustrates how a gentleman left the narrator, not the other way around. In other words, it wasn’t Elizabeth who pulled out of this marriage deal, but the Duke of Anjou. The French word “monsieur” then further links to the French duke and provided reasonable evidence to the assumption that the narrator could have been Queen Elizabeth I.
Metre & Structure
“On Monsieur’s Departure” is composed of three “Venus and Adonis” stanzas, which essentially means that it is written in iambic pentameter and follows an ABABCC rhyme scheme.
Line by Line
- “I” – The repetition of the pronoun “I” in the first stanza, particularly at the start of the first five lines, reveals the emotion in this poem; it is a very personal admittance, considering issues of love and identity. On a deeper level, the fact that the “I” begins the first five lines could indicate that the narrator is attempting to put their own needs first, trying to move on from the “monsieur’s departure”.
- “Dare not show my discontent” / “Dare not say I ever meant” – One of the reasons why the identity of this poem’s narrator is still disputed, is that some of the actions and words described are uncharacteristic of Elizabeth’s other writings. In this first stanza, the narrator repeats, “dare not”, characterising them to be somewhat shy and timid, yet Elizabeth wasn’t exactly known for holding back her emotions. In another of her poems, “The doubt of future foes”, she includes the line, “my rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ”, which essentially shows her threatening any usurpers to the throne, along with her own cousin, Mary Stuart.
- “I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate” – This line reveals another contrast to Elizabeth’s earlier works; in “A Speech to a Joint Delegation of Lords and Commons November 5, 1566”, Elizabeth has a great deal to say on the subject of her marriage, yet, in this poem, the narrator claims that they are “mute”. This line is also ironically followed by an end-stop, revealing how their internal “prate” contrasts their exterior.
- “I am and not” / “I freeze and yet am burned” – There are multiple conflicting binaries in this poem that demonstrate the narrator’s uncertainty considering their identity. This has come to be known as Petrarchan phrasing, which refers to when a person uses oxymoronic references such as ‘hot and cold’ or ‘war and love’ to verbalise their passion, or love, for someone.
- “My care is like my shadow in the sun” – Here the narrator uses the metaphor of a shadow to explain how they cannot free themselves from their worries; they are always there with them, no matter where they turn.
- “Flies when I pursue it” – Although their cares are always with them, when the narrator attempts to face them, trying to work through their emotions, they fly away. This may mean that the narrator can’t understand their thoughts, but, equally, can’t banish them, either.
- “Stands and lies by me, doth what I have done” – This line is particularly interesting in terms of metre, as it appears to shift from trochaic metre to iambic metre at the caesura midway through. Whilst the majority of this poem is written in iambic pentameter, the second stanza reveals a shift towards trochaic metre, which may reveal the narrator’s inner turmoil. After all, whilst iambic metre is often called the rhythm of love, as it echoes the human heartbeat, the trochaic metre is often called the subversion of that love. In other words, this line reveals the turmoil the narrator faces as they fight to realise how their love is no longer pure.
- “His too familiar care doth make me rue it” – The narrator is angered by their lover’s “care”, perhaps because it is “too familiar”; this suggests that they have either grown too used to the love, causing it to be all the more painful now, or that the lover’s grief is imperfect, “too familiar” perhaps because he really hurt.
- “Suppressed” – The narrator begins to accept that they will have to forever suppress their true emotions, for they may never leave them. In terms of assuming that Elizabeth is this narrator, it would make sense that she would have to hide her passion, in order to remain the strong, fearless leader of England.
- “Gentler passion” – At this point, the narrator begins to hope that some new “passion” may come into her life; Elizabeth may have perhaps been hoping that she would begin to hold feelings for one of her other suitors. This would have to be a “gentler passion”, however, because nothing could be as strong as this current love.
- “I am soft and made of melting snow” – If this really is Elizabeth writing, then this line reveals that the fierce, powerful impression given off by the queen is really only an act; inside, she feels weak and maybe even powerless.
- “Float or sink, be high or low” / “Live” / “Or die” – The narrator is looking for some kind of a direction and doesn’t care much about what it is. They want to move on from their failed passion, whether that be living in peace, or dying. Their passion has been so strong that they’d rather die than remain trapped in this permanent state of limbo. It is also important to note the repetition of the word “or” in this stanza, as it reveals the helplessness of the narrator whilst emphasising the paradoxical binaries brought on by the poem’s Petrarchan phrasing.
There is no way to ever tell whether the queen really was responsible for such a personal poem or not, which is why it is generally agreed that the best way to view this poem is separate from the suggestions that its poet may have been one of England’s most renowned monarchs. In itself, it is a somewhat satisfying love poem, considering the feelings of heartbreak and the need to move on from the pain of it all.
Incorporating the use of Petrarchan phrasing, clever metrical techniques, and numerous metaphors, there is enough to be thinking about when it comes to this poem, even without throwing Elizabeth’s name into the mix. Nevertheless, it’s pretty incredible to think when reading it – what if this poem really is an insight into the true emotions of the virgin queen? What if, despite her reluctance to marry, there was one man that she’d loved all along?