Poetry Review: Chidiock Tichborne, “Tichborne’s Elegy”

3 Jun

If it weren’t for a series of terrible decisions and one terrific poem at the very end of his life, Tichborne would never have been remembered.  A strong Catholic, he participated in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth (a Protestant) so that Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) could take over.  He failed, and wrote on the eve of his death an amazing poem.

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,/My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,/My crop of corn is but a field of tares,/And all my good is but vain hope of gain,/The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,/ And now I live, and now my life is done.

This is just the first stanza within which he focuses on the despair of one who is about to be executed.  I think this is braver than many of the executed who struggle to say something noble at the very end, or to curse the world–Tichborne focuses on his loss of life.  One thing I have to note is the strong tone of regret, without which the Elizabethans would have never let this poem escape the prison in which it was written.  I also like the blending of opposites to show how things are as they should not be, almost to the point of nonsense.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,/My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,/My youth is spent and yet I am not old,/I saw the world and yet I was not seen;/My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,/And now I live, and now my life is done.

The opposites here grow more subtle–we hear slight indications that this situation might not be fair, at least to the point that Tichborne sees it.  Everybody knows his story yet he hasn’t told it.  And we go through some more images, all in the passive tense, indicating that he was the victim of a power stronger than himself.  He’s a tree whose fruit fell too soon.  His accumulation of youth is spent (though he doesn’t say that he spent it) yet he does not have maturation either.   He saw the world (passive) yet nobody saw him–also indicating possible unfairness, like he was being blamed for something that nobody witnessed.  The thread bit deals with the fates, but could also deal with his fate for having his thread cut when he did not spin it.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,/I looked for life and saw it was a shade,/I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,/And now I die, and now I was but made;/My glass is full, and now my glass is run,/And now I live, and now my life is done.

Now he goes back to active tense (I sought, I looked, I trod, I die.)  He found death in birth, life in ghosts, tombs in earth–and yet, this voice, so strong, so sure, couldn’t this poem be a sort of birth for him?  This sort of mental clarity that came out like the moon on a cloudy night?  I’d like to think so.

This is a poem that is steeped in its situation.  Had you thought it was the yarns of an idle mind making some sort of memento mori, it wouldn’t be effective.  However, knowing that Tichborne wrote this quite literally on the eve of his own death gives this poem a jolt.  Also, that this poem was sent to his wife, one of the very last things he wrote, makes me wonder exactly what he was trying to say to her.  Because somehow, Tichborne seems to have a triumphant tone that sneaks under the words, as if he knew he wrote something that would last well beyond him, that this was the thing that would keep him alive.  That’s what we’re supposed to read this as, a tiny living piece of him that goes on, long after his regular life has ended.  I wonder if it would comfort that poor, scared, man to know that we are reading it 500 years later?

One Response to “Poetry Review: Chidiock Tichborne, “Tichborne’s Elegy””

  1. Mr. ClintonSpel October 7, 2014 at 9:44 am #


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