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'Tichborne's Elegy' (1586)
by Chidiock Tichborne (c. 1562-1586)

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 fall'n, 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.

Dr. Johnson famously remarked that if you have been told that you are to die in the morning 'it concentrates the mind wonderfully'. This seems to have been the case here as this poem's date of composition has been traditionally ascribed to 19th September, 1586 -the night before its author's execution.

The Tichborne family had owned land at Tichborne, near Winchester, since the twelfth century. Chidiock's father, Peter, who had a history of imprisonment for recusancy, came from a lesser branch and had married in August, 1562, making it likely that Chidiock was in his early twenties at the time of his death. He had been named in honour of his father's patron, Lord Chidiock Paulet (a distant kinsman).

Often people fail to grasp just how much the reign of 'Good Queen Bess' was one riven by religious intolerance -'liberal' only in its use of agents provocateurs, fines, imprisonment and torture as a means of dealing with those of 'popish tendencies'. To be a member of an ardent catholic family -as the Tichbornes undoubtedly were- was to be subjected to many forms of discrimination, harassment and bigotry.

In the June of 1586 the younger Tichborne was inducted into the so-called 'Babington plot' (whose aim was to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her with her catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots). This attempt at a coup d'etat was foiled by Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walshingham, and most of the conspirators fled -though Tichborne, who had somehow injured his leg, was obliged to remain in London, and soon captured.

The elegy was included in a letter to his wife, Agnes, written during his detention in the Tower of London. It was first published in Verses of Praise and Joye (1586) by John Wolfe in a volume intended to celebrate the Queen's survival. It is unusual in that it is comprised almost entirely of monosyllabic words. The elegy can be readily understood apart from the antiquated 'tares' (a type of weed).

Tichborne's fate was to be hanged, drawn and quartered (along with his co-conspirators Anthony Babington, John Ballard and four others) in St. Giles Field. He addressed the crowd prior to this -the customary punishment for Treason- being performed upon him. When told that this grusome spectacle had merely increased sympathy towards the remaining seven plotters held in custody, Elizabeth 'commuted' their execution to simple hanging. The Babington Plot would lead directly to Mary Queen of Scots' implication and her own execution (by beheading) some five months later.

FURTHER READING:
McLean, T. (1982) The Recusant Legend: Chidiock Tichborne, History Today, Vol 32, Issue 5;
Nichol, C. (1992) The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe, Cape (very good background reading on Elizabethan dissent);
Williams, P. (2004) 'Babington, Anthony (1561-1586)' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

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