Friday, May 8, 2020

In Time of Plague - Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life's lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen's eye.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector's brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
"Come, come!" the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us.

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death's bitterness;
Hell's executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player's stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us.

Given the state of the world right now, in May of 2020, I find myself thinking back through history, to another time of plague.  This brought me to Thomas Nashe, and this litany in the time of plague from his 1592 comedic stage play, Summer's Last Will and Testament.  A landmark work of English drama, Nashe's work wasn't performed when it was finished, due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Existing somewhere in between the earlier interlude dramatic form of the 16th century, and the later masque form of the 17th century, Nashe's work features many pastoral elements, such as satyrs, nymphs, Bacchus, etc.  These stock elements were well-known to audiences of the time, so references to things like Helen, Hector, etc, in this poem, while somewhat unfamiliar to us, were common in dramas of the time.  They offer handy shorthand, and establish mood, place, and theme.

So what of the text itself?  It's structured like a litany, a prayer, like a series of petitions, hence why each stanza ends with, "I am sick, I must die. / Lord, have mercy on us."  The text works as a farewell to life, earth's pleasures revealed as toys by death.  No amount of money can keep you from dying of plague, which, while true, I can't help but think of the awful disparity that exists in the US currently between those who have access to healthcare and those that do not, when it comes to coronavirus lethality.

However, the litany does not end in despair.  Earth is but a stage for our plays, and our heritage is heaven.  The repeated entreaties for mercy are not out of despair for life, but hope for life out of death.  I am not a particularly religious person, but looking to a time after the time of plague and sickness is uplifting.  I don't want this to feel like a grim post.  I find comfort in reading how people navigated these times in the past, and without the benefits we have now in terms of information and medicine.  I hope you're all well.  I ask that in these times, you think unselfishly.  Act with your neighbors and family in mind, and be well.