The Courtier as Sexual Slave to Elizabeth, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets

Centerpiece of canvas attributed to Robert Peake called "Queen Elizabeth going in Procession to Blackfriars in 1600"

Centerpiece of canvas called “Queen Elizabeth going in Procession to Blackfriars in 1600”

“From the royal court I lately came,” said he,

“Where all the bravery that eye may see,

And all the happiness that heart desire

Is to be found …

But tidings there is none, I you assure,

Save that which common is, and known to all,

That courtiers as the tide do rise and fall.”

(Edmund Spenser, Mother Hubbard’s Tale, 1591)

The image of courtiers rising and falling in or out of favor at the court of Elizabeth I was apparently translated by some writers into the image of male sex organs helplessly rising and falling at the command of their sovereign lady, who was often called the “female prince.” Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford used the metaphor referring to himself and the queen in Sonnet 151:

My soul doth tell my body that he may

Triumph in love: flesh stays no farther reason,

But rising at thy name doth point out thee

As his triumphant prize: proud of this pride,

He is contented thy poor drudge to be,

To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.

No want of conscience hold it that I call

Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.

(Emphases added.)

(Oxford’s use of “dear” in relation to Elizabeth recalls a letter Essex wrote to the queen as he was leaving for the Azores in 1597, addressing her as “most dear and most admired sovereign,” adding that “to your royal dear heart I appeal.”)

Oxford would never use the tone and language of the so-called Dark Lady sonnets in writing to or about any woman other than Queen Elizabeth herself. Only his sovereign mistress had the power to make him “contented thy poor drudge to be, to stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.”  He is referring not to love affairs, but, primarily, to great affairs of state, as Brutus uses the word in Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men …”

Editor Stephen Booth views “stand in thy affairs” in Sonnet 151 as referring to “a soldier’s loyalty to his commander, or comrades, or of a knight’s loyalty to his king” – or in this case, I would argue, his queen.  In line with nearly all commentators, however, Booth views the literal topic to be sexual and the military theme to be metaphorical, while I suggest the reverse – that the literal meaning is Oxford’s very real loyalty to the queen, while the sexual matter is mostly metaphorical. (I say “mostly” because, given that Oxford and Elizabeth had shared a romantic relationship many years earlier, the use of sexual imagery here is not without foundation.)

As Dorothy Ogburn writes in This Star of England (1952), the young Oxford “had been so fascinated by Elizabeth’s brilliant and cultivated mind, her peculiar eloquence, as well as her glamorous personality and authority, that he had given her his ardent love, in spite of the difference in their ages.” She adds that “from the beginning, everything he wrote concerned the queen.”

So this is just one more way that Queen Elizabeth emerges in the Sonnets as the dark lady, from the words and lines themselves.  Here is the list as it has grown so far:

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

7 – Sonnet 151: “I Rise and Fall” – the courtier as sexual slave to his Queen

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