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A Short Analysis of Chidiock Tichborne’s ‘Elegy’

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.

Tichborne’s Elegy

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.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on August 24, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is fascinating. I’d never heard of Chidiock Tichborne, but if he really did write this on the eve of his execution, what an extraordinary skill and focus of mind, to create art in the midst of your own death. As you say, belief in his own just cause may have helped him, but even the strongest minded soul would quake, knowing they were to be hanged drawn and quatered the next day.
    Thanks so much for bringing this extraordinary poem to my attention. Another gem

  2. ferretpower2013

    It is extraordinary to think of a young man writing poetry before his death, but Walter Raleigh did also – in his poem “Give me my scallop shell of quiet” he refers almost jokingly to his imminent death:
    And this is mine eternal plea
    To Him that made heaven, earth, and sea,
    That, since my flesh must die so soon,
    And want a head to dine next noon,
    Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,
    Set on my soul an everlasting head!
    Then am I ready, like a palmer fit,
    To tread those blest paths which before I writ.
    He also left, in his Bible, a short verse
    EVEN such is Time, that takes in trust
    Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
    And pays us but with earth and dust;
    Who in the dark and silent grave,
    When we have wander’d all our ways,
    Shuts up the story of our days;
    But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
    My God shall raise me up, I trust.
    The last two lines are a variant on the last verse of his poem ‘Nature, that washed her hands in milk.” They are very simple – they might almost have been carved on a grave stone in a country church yard, but almost unbearably touching.

  3. Beautiful and poignant. Thanks for revealing this beauty. The only sliver of poetic justice is the end of villainous Mr Kyd.

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