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Poem of the week: Tichborne's Elegy by Chidiock Tichborne


Written just before its author's execution for treason, the potency of this poem has as much do with its language as its poignant context

This week's poem, popularly known as "Tichborne's Elegy", was written either by a terrorist or a Christian martyr, depending on your point of view. Chidiock Tichborne was born into a devout Catholic family in Southampton, circa 1558. His life became increasingly difficult after Elizabeth I made the practice of Catholicism illegal, and he and his father, who had already spent time in prison, found themselves under constant surveillance.

The younger Tichborne joined the conspiracy known as the Babington Plot, which aimed to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was foiled, and Tichborne arrested. Three of his poems survive, of which this week's choice is by far the best, and the best-known. It was enclosed with a letter to his wife Agnes, despatched from the Tower of London on the eve of his execution for treason.

The poem gains a poignant authenticity from the biographical context, and no doubt this helps account for its popularity. It seems to come from the heart, the "I" of the poem at one with that of the condemned man writing it. Yet it would be no less fine a technical achievement if it had been framed as a dramatic monologue. The weaving of antithetical statements into paradox is masterly: the effect is neither playful nor literary but reveals the profound contradictions implicit in the human condition.

Tichborne's metaphorical dexterity is coupled with an ingenious use of tense to suggest the blurring of past and present. The repetition of "now" in the last line of each stanza has the effect of suggesting a passage of time so swift that past and present are telescoped: "And now I live, and now my life is done."

In fact, Tichborne was probably 28 at the time: in terms of Elizabethan life-expectancy he was hardly a green youth. The poem is truthful but it is also a performance, dramatising the actual situation into a dance of life with death. What could be more artificial than an elegy written by a poet for himself? This is not mere autobiography, but autobiography transcended and shaped into art. If he really wrote it the night before his execution, the act of composition must have been deeply absorbing. Let's hope it brought him some temporary serenity and consolation.

The poem was first printed in 1586, in the Royalist compilation, Verses of Prayse and Joye. I thought it would be interesting to include the riposte to the elegy, printed in the same collection, and usually attributed (I hope wrongly) to the pioneering Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Kyd.

The "Decasyllabon" lacks the force and skill of the original. There's no larger perspective, no sense of compassion. Its author lamely tries to appropriate Tichborne's metaphorical grand slam, only to say nothing more interesting than that the young traitor got all he deserved. I'm not sure what conclusion might be drawn from this, beyond the fact that Tichborne had the greater poetic talent. It might be that death makes a better muse than hatred, except that hatred has inspired plenty of fine satirical poems in its time. Perhaps the real trouble is that TK was not writing from any strong personal emotion at all. He was simply voicing the politically correct and safe sentiments of his age, conscious that the Queen's censors were looking over his shoulder.

Tychbornes Elegie, written with his owne hand in the Tower before his execution

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of paine,
My Crop of corne is but a field of tares,
And al my good is but vaine hope of gaine.
The day is past, and yet I saw no sunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
My tale was heard, and yet it was not told,
My fruite is falne, & yet my leaves are greene:
My youth is spent, and yet I am not old,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seene.
My thred is cut, and yet it is not spunne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death, and found it in my wombe,
I lookt for life, and saw it was a shade:
I trod the earth, and knew it was my Tombe,
And now I die, and now I was but made.
My glasse is full, and now my glasse is runne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Hendecasyllabon TK in Cygneam Cantionem Chidiochi Tychborne

Thy prime of youth is frozen with thy faults,
Thy feast of joy is finisht with thy fall:
Thy crop of corne is tares availing naughts,
Thy good God knowes, thy hope, thy hap and all.
Short were thy daies, and shadowed was thy sun,
T'obscure thy light unluckelie begun.

Time trieth trueth, & trueth hath treason tript,
Thy faith bare fruit as thou hadst faithless beene:
Thy ill spent youth thine after yeares hath nipt,
And God that saw thee hath preserved our Queen,
Her thred still holds, thine perisht though unspun,
And she shall live when traitors lives are done.

Thou soughtest thy death, and found it in desert,
Thou look'dst for life, yet lewdlie forc'd it fade:
Thou trodst the earth, and now in earth thou art,
As men may wish thou never hadst beene made.
Thy glorie and thy glasse are timeles runne,
And this, O Tychborne, hath thy treason done.

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