Queen Elizabeth as Dark Lady – “The Long-Lived Phoenix”

The Phoenix Portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575 - National Portrait Gallery, London

The Phoenix Portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575 – National Portrait Gallery, London

Devouring time, blunt thou the Lion’s paws,

And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,

Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce Tiger’s jaws,

And burn the long-lived Phoenix in her blood. (Sonnet 19)

Elizabeth I of England had “adopted the Phoenix as an emblem of herself,” Roy Strong notes in The Cult of Elizabeth. “The Phoenix Jewel in the British Museum is a badge of gold bearing a profile image of the Queen.”  The Phoenix is the mythological bird with a life span of more than 500 years.  When its life is over, it burns itself upon a wood pile set ablaze by the sun but then rises from its own ashes.

This linkage is taken up by Shakespeare in Act Five of Henry VIII, when Archbishop Cranmer predicts that when the newly born Princess Elizabeth finally dies she will leave an heir to the throne:

“But, as when bird of wonder dies, the maiden Phoenix, her ashes new create another heir as great in admiration as herself, so shall she leave her blessedness to one.” 

(The line is ambiguous. Does “Shakespeare” really believe that James of Scotland will be “as great in admiration” as Gloriana?  Or is he referring to the hope that she will produce an heir to rise from her own “ashes” or genetic material?)

This reference to the Phoenix is just another way the author of the Sonnets refers to Queen Elizabeth – one of many ways on this list, to which I’ll keep adding, to provide more evidence that the 1609 sonnet sequence continually points to her Majesty as the third member of the triangular relationship being chronicled.

It was she, of course, who refused to settle the “succession crisis” that plagued England, most especially during the final years of her reign. Clearly the author (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford) is furious at her for jeopardizing the country’s future.  In that regard it’s undoubtedly fitting that later in Sonnet 19 he pleads with “time” on behalf of his beloved fair youth (Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton):

Him in thy course untainted do allow

For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.

As Cranmer says of the princess in the same scene of the Shakespeare play, Henry VIII’s newly born daughter will grow to become “a pattern to all princes living with her, and all that shall succeed.”

(All italics in the Shakespearean lines are my emphases.)

The List as it now stands:

1 – Sonnet 76: “Ever the Same” – the Queen’s motto in English

2 – Sonnet 25: “The Marigold” – the Queen’s flower

3 – Sonnet 131: “Commanded by the Motion of Thine Eyes” – to a monarch

4 – Sonnet 1: “Beauty’s Rose” – the Queen’s dynasty of the Tudor Rose

5 – Sonnet 107: “the Mortal Moon” – Queen Elizabeth as Diana, the chaste moon goddess

6 – Sonnet 19: “The Phoenix” – the Queen’s emblem

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