1 prime: best time, first freshness.
Cares: troubles, sadnesses.
2 dish: meal, tasty serving of food. Here perhaps picking up on the Gospel imagery of the painful cup that must be drunk to fulfil God’s will.
3 tares: weeds. In the Gospel story, a plant sown among good wheat in an attempt to spoil the whole crop.
4 good: wealth, riches – also virtue.
5 past: gone by, departed.
6 now: at this moment, instantly.
done: finished, done with.
7 heard: listened to.
told: both “told” in our sense of “narrated” and “finished with”.
8 fallen: gone past, ripened and past its best.
9 spent: finished, completed.
10 the world: both in the sense of the physical world, and of society.
11 thread is cut: the thread spun by the Fates to symbolically determine the length of each man’s life.
it is not spun: not enough of it has been created.
13 in my womb: in my stomach – a punning reference to the way in which he was to die; also a reference to the origin of life – the origin of his fate is there from the womb, from his birth as a Catholic.
14 shade: ghost.
15 earth … knew it was my tomb: a common poetical conceit, harking back to the old English poem “Earth upon Earth” which puns on man being biblically created from earth and returning to earth, and reminiscent of the Ash Wednesday admonition “remember man that thou art dust / and unto dust thou shalt return”, and the funeral reminder “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
16 made: created (cf. Ben Jonson in “On My First Sonne”), and completed.
17 glass: both a literal glass (overflowing with wine, as in the psalmic reference “my cup runneth over” – in the sense of being fulfilled or happy) and an hourglass, measuring time.
This beautifully measured poem creates a series of balanced antitheses around the central theme of the loss of a young life. It was written, to accompany a letter to his wife, by the 28-year-old Chidiock Tichborne, as he awaited execution for his part in a plot against Queen Elizabeth I. He was a Catholic who had been free to practise his religion for his early life, but who had suffered under the anti-Catholic laws promulgated by Elizabeth in response to her excommunication by the Pope in 1570. Catholicism became illegal in England, and those suspected of practising the faith were punished by fines, and liable to be arrested and questioned by the authorities without warning. Chidiock and his father were both caught up in this sort of surveillance in 1583, and it is perhaps this experience which contributed to their involvement in the Babington Plot to assassinate the queen and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who was next in line to the throne. A double agent foiled the plot, and although most of the conspirators escaped, Tichborne, who stayed in London due to an injury, was caught and sentenced to death on 14 August.
The poem was apparently written on 19 September, the eve of his execution. The next day he was executed with Antony Babington, John Ballard, and four other conspirators. He was “hung, and drawn” which meant that, while still choking to death, he was disembowelled alive. His execution was apparently so horrific that the queen decided to allow the remaining seven conspirators to be killed before they were mutilated.
The poem is immediately striking both for its deft use of antithesis, and for its relative brevity and clarity. With the exception of ‘fallen’ (which in early editions is ‘fall’n’ and, as the metre indicates, pronounced as a monosyllable) every word in the poem is of one syllable, something that adds to its stark and plain effect.
Tichborne laments a very simple idea: he is too young to die. However, the situation that he sees himself (and England) to be in, means that there is no alternative open to him, and so death becomes in some sense the proper thing for him to experience. His execution both represents this injustice of the regime, and also demonstrates his martyrdom. His life, though tormented in its close, is in another sense “complete”; that it, he has finished his earthly purpose and can die in peace.
The contrast between his expectations as a young nobleman, and his reward as a traitor, between his youth and the punishment to be visited upon him, resonates through every line. In one sense he is in his ‘prime’, in another sense, he is a victim of ‘frost’ and so ready to die. The contrasts are elaborated upon in every line in a series of end-stopped ABABCC stanzas. A ‘feast of joy’ becomes contrasted with ‘a dish of pain’ (2), the good corn is contaminated with tares (3). In the first stanza, these images seem almost angry ones: ‘the day is past, and yet I saw no sun’ – like someone complaining of a cloudy day, Chidiock seems to be saying that he didn’t get a fair chance, that his life is ‘done’ before he had a fair crack of the whip.
In the second stanza, the mood changes slightly. Rather than the indignation of ‘vain hope’, Tichborne concentrates on the sadness of ‘fallen fruit’ and ‘spent youth’. Here he seems acutely aware – as in the accompanying letter to his wife – that in dying he leaves behind an ambivalent legacy for his wife and children. He sees his life in terms of an unspun thread of fate: he has not “seen the world” properly. Conversely, the world has not “seen” him properly – it has not realised what he is, or what he could have been. Here the refrain has a profound sadness – it is now too late for the world to redress its mistake. His thread is “cut”, he is leaving the world.
Finally, the poem explains that the condemnation and death was not really a shock. Like all good Christians, Tichborne says, he knew that he was going to die, and was prepared for this. When he looks for the reasons of his death, he can see them in his ‘womb’ – that is, in his birth and upbringing as a Catholic – inescapable in one way (in another, punning sense, his death is ‘in his womb’ because his stomach will be slashed open to kill him). He reassures his wife that he never fully trusted in life – he knew that it was in some ways illusory, “a shade”; he knew that he would eventually become like the earth he trod on, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Although he is dying now, from the point of view of eternity, it is only a moment since he was created; although his (hour) glass is run out, his glass (drinking-cup) is running over, full, as in the psalm: he is confident that he is beloved of God and cared for by him. He may be about to die, but so what? From the perspective of eternity this is small beer indeed, the moment between death and life is tiny, his suffering will be inconspicuous, his transition to heaven instantaneous.
Although the poem picks up on many images of regret and despair, it is itself far from despairing. Chidiock, although in some ways apparently regretful, seems in other ways to hold defiantly to his course. When, in the final line, he says that his life is “done” (18), the firm repetition suggests that he means that it is completed. He lives ‘now’ not just in the placid sense that he lives at the moment that he writes this poem, or even that he lives for a fragile moment ‘now … and done’, but he lives “now” really, perhaps for the first time, in sight of heaven – really lives, just as he realises what life is all about.
Suggestions for teaching and appreciation
Tichborne was someone who committed treason against the Queen of England, and sought to assassinate her. He also believed profoundly that he was doing the right thing. Is it possible to feel sympathy for Tichborne, or is it as difficult as feeling sympathy for a modern terrorist who seeks to destabilise the state? How does the historical context change our view of the poem? If it was written by someone on death row in America, would it have the same force?
To look at the letter that Tichborne wrote to his wife is a moving and interesting context for the poem. A good copy can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-6757.1986.tb00909.x/pdf (p.311). Reading this letter, is it possible to say that it reflects ideas in the poem, or are the two texts about entirely different things?
Another interesting exercise is to compare the response to the poem by T.K. (possible Thomas Kyd) that reviles the writer for his treachery against the Queen (you can also find this on the site above). The poem seeks to imitate the elegy in style. Does it do this effectively? How does it fail? Could students come up with a better version?
A summary of a famous Elizabethan poem
Chidiock Tichborne was only 24 years old when he was executed in the most horrifically brutal way, by being hanged, drawn, and quartered, for his role in the Catholic Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I in 1586. Tichborne’s Elegy, which he composed on 19 September 1586 on the eve of his execution and sent to his wife Agnes, remains his most famous poem, and an oft-anthologised example of sixteenth-century English verse. Commonly known as ‘Tichborne’s Elegy’, or by its first line ‘My Prime of Youth is but a Frost of Cares’, the poem is worthy of analysis because of the skill it demonstrates but also, of course, because of the circumstances under which it was composed.
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.
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.
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.
Before we get to a summary and analysis of Tichborne’s Elegy, a quick note on his name. The unusual name Chidiock was taken from his father’s patron, Chidiock Paulet, and has its origins in the name of a village in Dorset. Chidiock Tichborne is sometimes erroneously called Charles, a mistake that apparently originated in a misprint in the AQA GCSE English Literature syllabus in the UK.
The version we reproduced above is somewhat different from the original version Tichborne sent to his wife, where the first and third lines of that middle stanza were different. Below we’ve included the original version (with Tichborne’s own spelling) as it is included in the excellent anthology The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks, right down to the inconsistencies (‘live’ becomes ‘lyve’ in the middle stanza):
My prime of youth is but a froste of cares,
My feaste of joy, is but a dishe of payne,
My cropp of corne, is but a field of tares:
And all my good is but vaine hope of gaine:
The daye is gone, and yet I sawe no sonn:
And nowe I live, and nowe my life is donn.
The springe is past, and yet it hath not sprong
The frute is deade, and yet the leaves are greene
My youth is gone, and yet I am but yonge
I sawe the woorld, and yet I was not seene
My threed is cutt, and yet it was not sponn
And nowe I lyve, and nowe my life is donn.
I saught my death, and founde it in my wombe
I lookte for life, and sawe it was a shade.
I trode the earth and knewe it was my Tombe
And nowe I die, and nowe I am but made
The glasse is full, and nowe the glass is run
And nowe I live, and nowe my life is donn.
Reading the poem in its sixteenth-century spelling adds extra poignancy and power to its meaning.
Although the meaning of Tichborne’s ‘Elegy’ might be reasonably clear, a brief paraphrase of the poem might help to clarify a few things. His best years, he tells us, are not what they should be. The crop of corn he has (metaphorically) grown has turned out to be actually a nasty weed that merely resembles corn (but is inedible). (This is a biblical allusion to Matthew 13:25-30, which mentions the ‘tares’ of the bearded darnel, Lolium temulentum, a species of rye-grass, the seeds of which are highly poisonous. The weed looks remarkably like wheat until the ear appears.) All of the goodness in his life is a sham, because he foolishly and futilely hopes to achieve things which he never will. And although he never reached the lofty heights he hoped to, his life is already over, like an overcast day when the sun never comes out.
Spring is over, yet he missed the growth and warmth of that season; all the fruit that grew in the spring is already dead, even though the leaves remain green – in other words, Tichborne is still young, fit and healthy, but all of the things he hoped to achieve are already dead and over with. Paradoxically, although he is still young (just 24 when he wrote the Elegy, remember), his youth is now over – because his life is to end tomorrow. Although he went out there and saw the world, his potential was never realised. With a nod to the fates, Tichborne states that the ‘thread’ of his life has been cut, before the Fates of classical myth even had a chance to ‘spin’ a course for him (i.e. before he had a chance to make a real mark on the world).
In the final stanza, Tichborne reflects that, to borrow from T. S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, ‘In my beginning is my end.’ His death is to be found in his origin or conception, in the ‘wombe’ – in other words, no sooner had he been conceived and born than he is to be recalled by death. His life is but a shadow of what it could have been. The earth he has walked upon was his ‘tombe’ all this time: he was a dead man walking. He’s dying when he’s barely been made, or formed, into a man. One moment the hourglass is full of grains of sand, and the next moment they have all run out, and his time is up. The poem ends the way each stanza has ended: ‘And now I live, and now my life is done.’ There is something almost resigned or inevitable about those ‘And nows’: ‘and now this happens, and now tomorrow, this other thing is going to happen.’ C’est la vie – et la mort.
The poem is a masterly balance of contrasts, presenting, in each successive line, two distinct states: his field of corn is actually a field of weeds; the leaves are green and yet the fruit has already fallen from the tree, dead. The repetition of ‘and yet’ reinforces the sense of injustice and waste that Tichborne feels. After all, to his mind he is a brave representative of the true Christian faith being executed by a corrupt Protestant government. Yet Tichborne also probably believed he was a Catholic martyr who would be rewarded in heaven, which perhaps explains the more stoic tone glimpsed in that repeated refrain.
Chidiock Tichborne’s authorship of the ‘Elegy’ has been disputed, with some claiming it was another Tower of London jailbird, Sir Walter Raleigh, who wrote it. But it seems likely that Tichborne – who also wrote some other charming poems, such as ‘The Housedove’ – did indeed pen the poem shortly before his brutal execution. Interestingly, the pioneering playwright Thomas Kyd would pen a response to Tichborne’s Elegy, included below. Like Tichborne, Kyd would later fall foul of the authorities (for his associations with Christopher Marlowe), and would be tortured in the Tower; although he was later released, he would die of his injuries less than a year later.
Thy prime of youth is frozen with thy faults,
Thy feast of joy is finisht with thy fall;
Thy crop of corn is tares availing naughts,
Thy good God knows thy hope, thy hap and all.
Short were thy days, and shadowed was thy sun,
T’obscure thy light unluckily begun.
Time trieth truth, and truth hath treason tripped;
Thy faith bare fruit as thou hadst faithless been:
Thy ill spent youth thine after years hath nipt;
And God that saw thee hath preserved our Queen.
Her thread still holds, thine perished though unspun,
And she shall live when traitors lives are done.
Thou soughtst thy death, and found it in desert,
Thou look’dst for life, yet lewdly forc’d it fade:
Thou trodst the earth, and now on earth thou art,
As men may wish thou never hadst been made.
Thy glory, and thy glass are timeless run;
And this, O Tychborne, hath thy treason done.
Image: Portrait of a member of the Tichborne family, possibly Chideok or Chidiok Tichborne (painted by Hans Eworth), via Wikimedia Commons.