3My 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.
4My 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.
5I 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.
6This poem was apparently written in the Tower of London by the imprisoned Chidiock Tichborne, a young Catholic conspirator against Queen Elizabeth, the night before he was executed. Whether this account is true or not, whoever wrote the poem achieved an amazing force of plainness. The poem shows how powerful unadorned language can be and what genius it takes to give such language emotional bite.
7Tremendous feeling is generated by the directness, the straightforward hammering of repeated formula and refrain, above all the plainness of language: Except for the contestable exception "fall'n," the poem is written entirely in words of one syllable! It feels as if the poet has no time for anything but stark truth—and that feeling is attained by writing so artful that it seems nearly artless.
8In 1583, Tichborne and his father were arrested and questioned concerning the use of "popish relics." Though they were released without charge, records suggest that this was not the last time they were to be questioned by the authorities over their religion.
9In June 1586, Tichborne agreed to take part in the Babington Plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots who was next in line to the throne. The plot was foiled by Sir Francis Walsingham using a double agent and though most of the conspirators fled, Tichborne had an injured leg and was forced to remain in London. On August 14, he was arrested and sentenced to death.
10While in custody in the Tower of London on September 19 (the eve of his execution), Tichborne wrote to his wife Agnes. The letter contained three stanzas of poetry that are his only known piece of work, Tichborne's Elegy, also known by its first line My Prime of Youth is but a Frost of Cares. The poem is a dark look at a life tragically cut short and is a favourite of many scholars to this day.
11On September 20, 1586, Tichborne was executed with Anthony Babington, John Ballard, and four other conspirators. They were disembowelled while still alive on the gallows at Tower Hill as a warning to other would-be conspirators; however, when the Queen heard reports of these particularly gruesome executions, she gave orders that the remaining seven conspirators were to be allowed to hang until dead before being disembowelled.
12With Tichborne's, "Elegy…," lies a poem encasing several metaphors that enable the reader to imagine with compassion the disturbance of peace within the thoughts of the poet. This writer recognized what was happening in his life before his execution, and proclaims "My feast of joy is but a dish of pain"
13Within this powerful statement, the poet realized that his last meals were not that of nourishment, but was that of pain of great emotional suffering. What we take for granted (life, the comforts of home, food, etc.), Tichborne suffers to keep within him as a yearning for comfort. As we ponder upon our thoughts after reading these elegies, we enable ourselves to experience the discomforts or joys within them, found within the metaphors of each verse.
14Tichborne's Elegy reveals to the reader the poet's reckoning with his own death. It is rare that poets write of their own demises with the foreknowledge of its untimeliness, as in this case, and the difficulty of the situation pervades throughout the verse. Tichborne clearly feels that his life is being severed from its rightful course ), yet we are not directly informed of this notion until the central stanza.
15We are first thrust into a dismal mood by the first stanza, which reduces all the meaningful aspects of the poet to insignificance...in fact, if not for the note preceding the poem ("Written.../...before his execution") and the name in the title, we would wonder if the lines weren't penned by some bitter old man waiting for his days to run out.
16Perhaps this was the intention of Tichborne - to make himself feel old and feeble, so that the realization of his own impending expiration could be more easily accepted. The repetition of the last line of each stanza emphasizes the poet's inability to escape his execution, and its simple, matter-of-fact manner manages to bring a tired surrender with it ("And now...and now").
17The very fact that Tichborne is writing poetry in the last moments of his life gives him an element of grace and dignity - he clearly isn't losing his wits over his unhappy situation. His poem is perfectly iambic pentameter with true a b a b c c rhyme, completely masculine in endings, and a few interesting parallels pull its framework together strongly. Each end rhyme pair is significantly appropriate, each being an opposite of the other and yet equated.
18For example, lines 1 and 3, "cares" and "tares," or lines 2 and 4, "pain" and "gain." With these words placed carefully in these positions, the poet's youth is degraded further through the association, becoming first a "frost of cares," then equated to "tares," or weeds. This paradox/equation follows through most of the poem, especially well in lines 13 and 15 ("death" = "womb" = "tomb"). Even the fifth and sixth lines of the second and third stanza end in equative diction.
19As is customary in elegiac poems beyond the seventeenth century, Tichborne finds some amount of consolation by the end of his verse, realizing that every man will die regardless of the time. Tichborne's elegy to himself is completed in a self-specific resolution, yet it can be generally applicable as well; death begins at birth, and the earth is man's eventual tomb. The poet substitutes a metaphorical hourglass for his life, and he seems to find some amount of acceptance through this as the sands run out with the end of the poem.