The poem is filled with wonderful examples of imagery and deep layers of meaning that are interesting to uncover. At its heart, ‘Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear’ is about a woman’s defeat of the powerful forces around her and the way that the Queen maintained power despite having many who opposed her.
Explore Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear
‘Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear’ by Norman Dubie is an interesting and memorable poem about how Queen Elizabeth I survived an attack by a bear.
The poem opens with a description of the horrible conditions the bear and dogs endured. Both were tormented and baited, ensuring they were violent. At one point, one of the bears, later named Peter (a gift from the Russian royal family), turns on the Queen and starts to make moves towards her box. The bear is shot down, and the Queen honors it with a burial. She later digs it up, has its bones bleached, and keeps it by her bed with candles in its eyes. It reminds her of herself in the end.
You can read the full poem here.
The bears are kept by hundreds within fences, are fed cracked
Eggs; the weakest are
Men—the blood spills from deep pails with bottoms of slate.
In the first stanza of ‘Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear,’ the speaker begins by noting that Queen Elizabeth I has “bears…by hundreds within fences.” They are fed to one another when they’re deemed weak. This dark and brutal opening to the poem continues with the speaker describing how the bears are enticed into eating one another’s meat when it’s been “scented / With the blood of deer.” This stanza sets up an attack on Elizabeth in the following lines.
The balding Queen had bear gardens in London and in the country.
Are starved, then, emptied, made crazy with fermented barley:
The Queen, who is described as “balding” (a way, perhaps, of suggesting that she’s weakened), has experience with bear gardens, but one particular bear is being “baited.” It has its “nostrils” blown with pepper, and it is taunted by dogs. These dogs are “made crazy with fermented barley.” These lines allude to an oncoming bad situation, one that plays itself out in the following lines.
And the bear’s hind leg is chained to a stake, the bear
Is blinded and whipped, kneeling in his own blood and slaver, he is
The white lap of Elizabeth I—arrows and staves rained
The poor bear has been “blinded and whipped” and is “kneeling in his own blood and slaver.” The bear is “worried by the dogs” and is then set out into the garden with those same dogs “hanging from his fur.” He’s maddened and attacked and turns his rage on the people around him. One of these dogs he attacks and tosses. It lands on Elizabeth’s lamp, likely covering her in blood. The poet uses the phrase “white lap,” alluding to Elizabeth’s virginity and ensuring readers can envision the contrast between her clothing and the bloody dog.
The bear itself is described as taking “away the sun.” It’s so large that it casts a shadow over the Queen.
On his chest, and standing, he, then, stood even taller, seeing
Blood all over Elizabeth and her Privy Council.
The bear stood up taller, despite being shot with “arrows and staves.” He shows his power and grins in the direction of the Queen’s private boxes. He looks right at her and at what the poet describes as her “battered eggshell face.” This is an allusion to the white foundation she wore on her skin. He “showered / Blood all over” her and the Privy Council, a group of men who were constantly trying to control the Queen.
Stanzas Five and Six
The very next evening, a cool evening, the Queen demanded
Thirteen bears and the justice of 113 dogs: she slept
A grave in a Catholic cemetery. The marker said:
Peter, a Solstice Bear, a gift of the Tsarevitch to Elizabeth.
The fifth stanza is only two lines long. In it, the poet describes how the Queen demanded the deaths of 13 bears and 113 dogs. This is a demonstration of power that contrasts with the depiction of Elizabeth as weakened. She slept the next day and then decided to honor the “defeated bear” with a grave.
The following lines provide readers with more information about the bear. It was a gift from the Tsarevitch to Queen Elizabeth. The bear came from the Russian royal family, and Elizabeth came up with exciting plans after its death.
After a long winter she had the grave opened. The bear’s skeleton
She spoke to it:
At the end of winter, she had the grave opened, the skeleton removed, cleaned, and placed at her bedside. With candles in its eyes, she gave it a new life. The last lines convey Elizabeth’s words to the bear.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
You were a Christmas bear—behind your eyes
I see the walls of a snow cave where you are a cub still smelling
You will be in this cold room—your constant grin,
You’ll stand in the long, white prodigy of your bones, and you are,
Every inch of you, a terrible vision, not bear, but virgin!
Elizabeth speaks to the bear, telling it that she can see its beginning (a snow cave) and its end. The bear was defeated, despite casting a great shade over the Queen. She defeated this threat to her life and her power. She’s defeated it and remade it in a new way. The bear stands by her bed in its “long white bones, alone” and capable of frightening away all visions of itself from her dreams. The Queen compares the bear to herself at the end of the poem. It is white, a virgin, just like she is. Both, she hopes, are terrible visions.
Structure and Form
‘Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear’ by Norman Dubie is a nine-stanza poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. They range in length from one line up to eleven. The second to last stanza is the longest of the nine, and the final stanza is the shortest. This poem is also written in free verse. This means that the poet does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “fences” and “fed” in the first line and “blood” and “brought” in line four of the first stanza.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of aline. For example: “Men—the blood spills from deep pails with bottoms of slate.”
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and evocative descriptions. For example: “And the bear’s hind leg is chained to a stake, the bear / Is blinded and whipped, kneeling in his own blood and slaver, he is.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before it’s natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two, three, and four of the second stanza.
The tone is descriptive and interested. The speaker conveys the events of several days, and then a year later, as Elizabeth deals with the bear and related fallout. Elizabeth’s words are passionate the determined in the final stanzas.
The speaker is someone who has an intimate knowledge of the events surrounding the Christmas bear attack. Later in the poem, Queen Elizabeth’s words make up the final stanzas.
The purpose is to describe a woman’s defeat of the powers around her. Despite trying to be usurped her entire life, Elizabeth remained in power. She was constantly fending off attacks from inside and outside; this bear is one interesting and evocative example.
The most important theme at work in this poem is power. There is the power that the trainers and keepers have over the bear, that which the bear tries to exert over Elizabeth, and the power she shows when the bear is defeated and made into a bedside companion.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’ by Queen Elizabeth I – describes the emotional tumult a speaker experiences after separating from the one she loves.
- ‘The Shebeen Queen’ by Mafika Gwala – depicts the life of a “shebeen queen” and the consumerist name of society.
- ‘The Long Queen’ by Carol Ann Duffy – explores the reign of Elizabeth I, who was on the throne from 1558-1603.