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(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?