Friday, February 6, 2015

Tichborne's Elegy - Chidiock Tichborne

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feat 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 yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

The spring is past, and yet it hath not spring,
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.

This poem, concerned with too soon endings and transitory life, is made tragic by the circumstances of its author's life, and as you may have guessed, untimely death.  Born in 1558 (possibly 1562), in England, he was executed in 1586 by Elizabeth I.  He was Catholic, and due to very harsh anti-Catholic measures instituted by the Queen in 1570, he lived much of his life being constantly questioned and treated with suspicion.  He eventually joined the Babington conspirators, who were planning a political coup, but was discovered and imprisoned for treason.  This poem, often called Tichborne's Elegy, was composed before his execution in a letter to his wife, as means of farewell.

Besides the circumstances in which the poem was written, it uses paradox effectively to communicate the plight of Tichborne's situation.  He dies, but is now made.  The fruit is dead, but the leaves are green.  It's easy to hear sorrow here, particularly in the line, "My youth is gone, and yet I am but young."  Tichborne was likely between 23 and 27 at the time of his execution, and surely, his youth was gone (he was to be executed) but he was still young.  This technique is employed constantly throughout, as opposing images are set in paradoxical ways.

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