Our last poem showed poor Marvell’s mower wandering the woods his mind ‘displac’d’ by the lovely Juliana. And this week too, we’ll look at a man whose mind was moved to distraction by a woman. In this poem, however, it is the poet himself, none other than the Earl of Essex, who has lost his wits as a result of a woman, although, despite appearances, not at all in the same way.
One of the interesting differences between the present day and the 16th or 17th centuries is that many of the prominent poets of the day were also important men of their age, or else knew some. There are a few notable exceptions in the modern age – the current President of Ireland is a poet and the last President of the European Council (whatever that is) wrote Haikus – but you can’t quite compare that to the big men at Elizabeth’s court like the Sidneys, Raleigh and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who wrote this:
Change thy mind since she doth change,
Let not fancy still abuse thee.
Thy untruth cannot seem strange
When her falsehood doth excuse thee.
Love is dead and thou art free;
She doth live, but dead to thee.
Whilst she lov’d thee best awhile,
See how she hath still delay’d thee,
Using shows for to beguile
Those vain hopes that have deceiv’d thee.
Now, thou see’st although too late
Love loves truth, which women hate.
Love no more since she is gone;
She is gone and loves another.
Being once deceiv’d by one,
Leave her love, but love none other.
She was false, bid her adieu;
She was best, but yet; untrue.
Love, farewell, more dear to me
Than my life which thou preservest.
Life, all joys are gone from thee,
Others have what thou deservest.
O my death doth spring from hence;
I must die for her offence.
Die, but yet before thou die,
Make her know what she hath gotten.
She in whom my hopes did lie
Now is chang’d, I quite forgotten.
She is chang’d, but changed base,
Baser in so vile a place.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex
Though this sounds like a lover complaining about his untrue woman, the tone is one of rancour. Although lyrical, with simple rhymes and a jaunty rhythm, it is not really love poetry at all. It shares some qualities with the complaints of Catullus, with his speeches to himself not to pursue an unreturned love. But in fact it is not about romantic love at all, but about courtly pre-eminence. The woman Essex woos is long beyond the age of wooing – and in fact was never successfully wooed: he is adressing, rather too boldly, Elizabeth I of England.
It was written some time after Essex had lost his prestige at court, and perhaps not long before he made the wild, ill-conceived rebellion that he would be most remembered for. Essex clearly felt a great sense of injustice at his treatment at the hands of the queen (what he hints at in the poem, he confirmed by his armed uprising!) And there is a great ring of truth to his complaints: anyone who has read much about Elizabeth will recognise the eloquent and slippery obfuscator he characterises, who ‘ hath still delay’d thee, / Using shows for to beguile / Those vain hopes that have deceiv’d thee.’ But Essex would have been wiser to blame his own vain hopes for his misfortune, rather than her beguiling shows and delaying tactics: Elizabeth used equivocation and deliberate ambiguity as a means of rule. Even so, it is fair to ask if there is any justification in his sense of aggrievement.
Earlier in his career, he had been a favourite of Elizabeth, who had been impressed by his eloquence and dandiness, and later by his swashbuckling derring-do in England’s conflicts with Spain, not least a starring role in the capture of Cadiz. By the late 1590s he had built up a court faction to rival that of Elizabeth’s more austere, pragmatic ministers, the Cecils, Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil. In 1598, the elder Cecil died and the younger took his post as Chancellor, among other things, while Essex became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This was no mere fob-off, but a very important job: the Irish Nine Years War was in full flight, with rebellious Ulster, led by another great warrior of the age, Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, causing the English severe headaches. This was no mere local quarrel – the Spanish were happily sponsoring the Irish rebels to keep the English too busy to disrupt their own ambitions. For Elizabeth and Cecil this was an urgent and costly matter. Perhaps they both hoped that putting Essex in charge there would both relieve London of his oversized ego, and help to win England her war in Ireland.
Essex went into Ireland with a large contingent of troops but made no real difference to the situation there. Nor had the men before him, so he might have got away with that but for a fateful encounter with the Earl of Tyrone in Ulster. Their armies within fighting distance of each other, the two men agreed to parley head to head. They did so on horseback, for an hour or so, the Earl of Tyrone’s horse standing in a flowing stream. In their parley, the men agreed a truce, and their armies retreated. It is not clear exactly what had happened – had Essex been beguiled by the Earl’s charm and reputation, or – as a direct battle loomed – had he suddenly lost the heart to fight? Most likely, I think, in his gargantuan self-regard, he had deemed himself important enough to be able to come to terms as he wished. But he had miscalculated terribly. In Elizabeth’s eyes the Earl of Tyrone was an unforgivable traitor – he had been raised by the English in Dublin to rule in the Queen’s interests, and later in life he had rebelled and even colluded with the Spanish. Elizabeth didn’t want a truce with Tyrone, she wanted his head on a Pike. When Essex returned home, he was put on trial and thrown in the tower where he would brood on his revenge.
Elizabeth was like that. I have no sympathy for Elizabeth’s goals in Ireland, and a great deal more for Hugh O’Neill, in whose story there is more of great tragedy than the semi-farcical fall of the Earl of Essex. Still, it is pretty easy to understand what Elizabeth wanted and why she wanted it. When Essex complains that ‘others have what thou [i.e. he] deservest’, he doesn’t stop too long to wonder whether he did deserve the plaudits he yearned for. It is he, not women, who hates truth – the truth of his failure. He is wrong to claim ‘She in whom my hopes did lie / Now is chang’d ‘, for Elizabeth, shrewd, clever, calculating and ruthless, was the same as she had ever been. All that had changed was her view of the Earl. And on that she was quite right, really.