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This poem, along with several others, were written by Chidiock Tichborne (1558-1586), the night before he was executed for his involvement with the assassination plot of Elizabeth I. It originally had no title, but On the Eve of Execution, and Tichborne's Elegy have been its' given name for centuries.

On the Eve of Execution

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 gone and I yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green,
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen,
My thread is cut, and yet it was not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

   I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I lookt for life and saw it was a shade,
I trode the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made.
The glass is full, and now the glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done
     The day is gone and I yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Tichborne was one of the many Catholics who lost their lives during the religious persecutions in the 16th century. Catholics, especially priests, were the prey of Queen Elizabeth's officers and as a result of this there was a considerable amount poetry was written in the Tower at this time. Tichborne was later made a Saint of the Catholic Church as one of the "Forty Martyrs of England and Wales". He was at condemned the age of 28, for his supposed part in the Babington Plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. and this elegy was supposedly scratched on the walls of the Tower of London by Chidiock Tichborne(1558 - 1586) before his execution in 1586. An elegy is typically a mournful song or poem for the dead and not usually written autobiographically. Unfortunately, Tichborne was able to write this elegy for himself in the certain knowledge of his death by execution in 1586. The verses became famous in the period and it is said that he wrote this to a wife by the name of Agnus.
    Tichborne was not pre-eminently a poet but a conspirator. History is not sure of the part he played in the attempt to do away with Queen Elizabeth. Conjecture has it that he was born about 1558 somewhere in Southampton, and it is said that his father, Peter Tichburne, traced his descent from Roger de Tichburne, a knight in the reign of Henry II. His family was ardently Catholic and both Chidiock and his father were zealous champions of the Church of Rome; they did not scruple to abet the king of Spain in "holy" attacks on the English government. In 1583, Chidiock and his father were questioned concerning the possession and use of certain "popish relics"; somewhat later they were further implicated as to their "sacrilegious and subversive practices". In April 1586, Chidiock joined a group of conspirators. In June, at a meeting held in St.Giles-in-the-Fields he agreed to be one of the six who were pledged to murder the Queen and restore the kingdom to Rome. The conspiracy was discovered in time; most of the conspirators fled. But Tichborne, who had remained in London because of an injured leg, was captured on August 14th and taken to the Tower. On September 14th, he was tried and pled guilty. He was executed on September 20th. In a grim finale, history relates, he was "disembowelled before life was extinct" and the news of the barbarity "reached the ears of Elizabeth, who forbade the recurrence."

Louis Untermeyer (The Wondering Minstresl)

This is for obvious reasons a one hit wonder and enjoys popularity among high school English teachers today because it represents a nice example of an elegy in a unique and interesting historical setting. What is left of Tichborne's life is painful and is over too soon without having really lived it. Contradictory statements which are actually meaningful describe a truth. He uses the metaphysical conceit of drawing upon his wide range knowledge, from the commonplace to the esoteric, and uses comparisons that are elaborately rationalized. Each line contrasts an aspect of his existence with the pain of the present. Composed with what seems at first glance as a singular versification it was considered conventional for the period he lived in; common in the language of both love and religious poetry of the 16th and later 17th century poets. Tichborne begins by telling that the earthly joys he is about to leave were not really joys at all. In particular the verse is typical for how the quality in the first half of a phrase is negated in the second. For example "prime of youth" is compared with a "frost of cares". Using frost and youth makes it contrast more effectively. While A feast of joy"/"a dish of pain" emphasizes the sizes a "feast" as being large, while a "dish" in comparison is small. Tares makes reference to an invasive weed in grain fields; the Parable of the Tares an allusian to those who would be dammed to hell and corn represents those who would be saved. The images would imply a parable found in the Matthew 13:24-30 of the Bible.

While the second stanza focuses paradoxes, there are also ample metaphors. My thred is cut is something continuously drawn out or spun like a thread. The thread being the continuous course of life, represented in classical mythology as a thread which is spun and cut off by the Fates. The eldest of the three classical Greek fates, Atropos, cut the thread of his life with her shears before Lachesis had had an opportunity to spin out the events of his life. My glasse is full refers to an hour-glass; his time has run out.

By the third verse Tichborne examines the shortness of his own life and his implications are that the reader's life will also be short. His sincerity, as well as the lack of self pity enable him to face the most difficult of his situation, death, with some dignity and fortitude. One thing of note is that every word is monosyllabic making it spontaneous, eloquent and simple.

There is a Hendecasyllabon, or what is defined by the OED as a 'verse or line of poetry: consisting of eleven syllables.' Although it's only signed T.K. it's commonly thought by many to be a reposte to Tychborne's verse written by Thomas Kyd(1558-1594).

Hendecasyllabon(n. 7) T.K. in Cygneam Cantionem Chidiochi Tychborne.(n. 8)

Thy prime of youth is frozen with thy faults,
thy feast of ioy is finisht with thy fall:
Thy crop of corne is tares auailing naughts,
thy good God knowes, thy hope, thy hap and all
Short were thy daies, and shadowed was thy sun
T'obscure thy light unluckelie beg
Time trieth trueth, & trueth hath treason tript,
thy faith bare fruit as thou hadst faithles beene:
Thy ill spent youth thine after peares hath nipt,
and God that saw thee hath preserude our Due
Her thred still holds, thine perisht though unspun,
And she shall liue when traitors liues are done.

Thou soughtst thy death, and found it in desert,
thou look oft for life, yet lewdlie forcd it fade:
Thou trodst the earth, and now on earth thou art,
as men may wish thou never hadst beene made.
Thy glorie and thy glasse are timeless runne,
And this, O Tychborne, hath thy treason done.

T.K.

In the year following his execution, John Wolfe published Verses of Praise and Joy. He changed the seventh line of Tychborne's poem to My tale was heard, and yet it was not told. The title page describes its contents:

    "Written upon Her Majesty's preservation. Whereunto is Annexed Tichborne's Lamentation, Written in the Tower with his Own Hand and an Answer to the Same"
The book is dedicated to a Latin poem entitled, Ad Serenissiman Reginam Elizabetham, Apostrophe or An Apostrophe to the Most Serene Queen Elizabeth followed by an English translation, the poem called "The Same in English." Both the translation and original are anonymous. In essence the poet relates that life without the Queen would be equal to a 'double death,' if the Babington Plot would have been successful.

An Apostrophe to the Most Serene Queen Elizabeth

Reign, live, and blissful days enjoy,
thou shining lamp of th'earth.

The only life of country's state,
thy subjects' health and mirth.

On thee we ground our hope; through thee
we draw our breath with joy.

God grant thee long amongst us breathe,
God shield thee from annoy.

To die for thee were sweet, to live
were wretched but for thee.

Without thee death a second life,
life double death, should be.

Sources

Learn.co.uk:
www.learn.co.uk/

The Same in English, anonymous:
miavx1.muohio.edu

The Tower:
www.etsu.edu/english/sites/bowens.htm

Public domain text taken from The Wondering Minstrels:
http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/144.html

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