I like to mix things up with this project, presenting Poetry’s Greatest Hits but also less-known poems and poets too. One oddity is that two of the most popular pieces here over the past four years have been by unknown poets known rather as heads of state: a teenage love poem by George Washington and a lament from Abraham Lincoln.
History is unavoidably entangled with literature, so I’m often pleased to present poems that are personal witnesses to history. Today’s piece uses three texts written by Queen Elizabeth I of England, or rather by a young princess who wasn’t queen at the time of their writing, but was instead a political prisoner.
As someone who grew up in the U.S. I didn’t have a good grasp of British history for most of my life. Over the years I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but one element that I discovered was the degree to which that the era surrounding the vigorous birth of English literature was a dangerous, violent, unstable political situation. And the woman who would give her name to that era, was not protected from those horrors.
The story is complex, here’s the best brief summary I can come up with. Europe had been in the throes of religious-affiliated warfare between Catholics and the Protestant wings of Christianity mixed in with the usual imperial cross-conflicts for some time. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII had moved England into the Protestant camp largely so that he could divorce his wife and marry the woman who would be Elizabeth’s mother. That new Queen eventually was executed as Henry VIII moved on through his infamous marital history. At Henry’s death, his young male child and heir Edward became king in name, but with an adult Protector running the country, but that protector’s brother sought to marry the teenage Elizabeth and take over. That plot failed, and the Protector’s brother was beheaded.
On the sickly Edward’s death at age 15, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII’s first, divorced, queen) became ruler of England, and she switched the country back to the Catholic side. Every time the state religion changed, suppression of the other religion occurred, and plots from the outs faction against the new establishment were rife.
Elizabeth was, on paper, next in the line of succession at this point, but aligned with the Protestants. This barely protected her and made her a target at the same time. And in 1554 a Protestant plot that aimed to unseat Mary and put Elizabeth in her place was discovered. Elizabeth was now 21, some suspected her being a participant, not just a pawn being moved surreptitiously to the queen’s row on the chessboard, and once more executions will be going forward for the discovered plotters.
Elizabeth was taken to the Tower of London. Her imprisonment began, interrogation was in store, even torture and execution were possible.
After several months in the Tower, a compromise was reached between those who wished to rid Queen Mary of the plausible rival and those that thought it better to not martyr Elizabeth. She was shipped off to a disused old castle, Woodstock, away from the court and other plotters. It could be said she was now at a royal palace, not the Tower where traitors were imprisoned and executed. In reality, she was still imprisoned, kept in the half-ruined castle’s gatehouse under guard.
The story goes that today’s poem was written in charcoal on the interior wall of that gatehouse by the imprisoned princess. As a poem it’s also a political statement, a rather clever one at that. On its face it’s not addressed to those who’ve imprisoned her, rather it’s addressed to impersonal fortune, fate. Like a candidate sticking to the message, she’s not charging her Queen and half-sister with being behind this, but she is calling out injustice. She’s not issuing a call to overthrow the government, but only slyly praying in conclusion that a just God may send “to my foes all that they have thought.”
In today’s performance I’ve framed that poem written on a prison wall with two other shorter texts: a couplet titled “In Defiance of Fortune” and an ending: three lines scratched into the glass of a window pane in the gatehouse by a diamond, an even starker statement by a political prisoner.
Musically, I’ve been thinking of The Byrds, and so it was time to break out the electric 12-string. I even thought of punning off the title of the half-ruined castle that Elizabeth was imprisoned at by referring to Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” musically—but in the end there is only an echo of that song’s chord progression left in my music.
There are more stories in the swerving era of revolution and counter revolution, secret police and royal executions. Elizabeth’s eventual reign doesn’t end the religiously affiliated plots. After her death and a new Protestant king, one of the last serious Catholic-affiliated plots against the government ends when Guy Fawkes is found watching over some great store of gunpowder in a crypt under the parliament building. An English holiday is born, celebrated on November 5th: a burlesque of treason or revolution, suitable for children. Effigies are burned, there are taffy apples, and fireworks smell in loud colors.
Arrest, torture, head on a pike, then centuries as the but of holiday villainy. Only Alan Moore can save him now!
Of course it was deadly serious for Fawkes, ready to kill in defense of his oppressed religion, and deadly serious for the government, ready to execute him for such a plan. Someone—do we call them Fortuna or God—had a joke to tell us. As Fawkes was led up the execution platform, he tripped, fell off the platform, and broke his neck. History, like literature, has so many sad stories, some uplifting ones, and then again some jokes.
To hear Elizabeth’s prison poem performed, use the player below. Want to read the texts and a few other poems attributed to Elizabeth, they are available here.*
*I found out about these most directly Elizabethan poems over at the Interesting Literature blog. Highly recommended.