Chidiock Tichborne

Friday, January 27, 2006

Perhaps you're thinking, "WHAT the heck does Chidiock Tichborne mean? What language is that?" Or, if you recognize that it's a name, you may be thinking "WHO the heck is Chidiock Tichborne?"

Chidiock Tichborne is the man who wrote one of my favorite poems. As far as we know, he only wrote one that was famous, and it is morbid and depressing...for good reason. I'll let esteemed writer/editor Louis Untermeyer explain:

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Chidiock Tichborne is a name as obscure as it is odd. The antiquarian syllables, remembered only by a few, are difficult to place and harder to locate. Tichborne does not appear in either The Golden Treasury or the Oxford Book of English Verse or the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Yet he wrote one of the most moving poems of his century.

Tichborne was not pre-eminently a poet but a conspirator. History is not sure of the part he played in the attempt to do away with Queen Elizabeth. Conjecture has it that he was born about 1558 somewhere in Southampton, and it is said that his father, Peter Tichburne, traced his descent from Roger de Tichburne, a knight in the reign of Henry II. His family was ardently Catholic and both Chidiock and his father were zealous champions of the Church of Rome; they did not scruple to abet the king of Spain in "holy" attacks on the English government. In 1583, Chidiock and his father were questioned concerning the possession and use of certain "popish relics"; somewhat later they were further implicated as to their "sacrilegious and subversive practices". In April 1586, Chidiock joined a group of conspirators. In June, at a meeting held in St.Giles-in-the-Fields he agreed to be one of the six who were pledged to murder the Queen and restore the kingdom to Rome. The conspiracy was discovered in time; most of the conspirators fled. But Tichborne, who had remained in London because of an injured leg, was captured on August 14th and taken to the Tower. On September 14th, he was tried and pled guilty. He was executed on September 20th. In a grim finale, history relates, he was "disembowelled before life was extinct" and the news of the barbarity "reached the ears of Elizabeth, who forbade the recurrence."

On September 19, 1586, the night before he was executed, Chidiock wrote to his wife Agnes. The letter enclosed three stanzas beginning: "My prime of youth is but a frost of cares."

This elegy is so restrained yet so eloquent, so spontaneous, and so skillfully made that it must be ranked among the little masterpieces of literature. The grave but not yet depressing music of the lines is emphasized by the repetition of the rhymed refrain, as though the poet were anticipating the slow tolling of the bell announcing his death.

He was twenty-eight years old.

[Louis Untermeyer]

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Tichborne's Elegy

(aka "My Prime Of Youth Is But A Frost Of Cares"

or "On The Eve Of His Execution")

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 found 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.

—Chidiock Tichborne

*This is from the first printed version in Verses of Prayse and Joye (1586). The original has some differences, most notably in the second verse:

The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,

My fruit is falne, and yet my leaves are green,

My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,

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.

The word "falne" (meaning dead/fallen) in line 2 is modernized as "fallen"...which changes one of the notable aspects of the poem: in its original form, it is composed entirely of monosyballic words.

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(No, this is not some warning sign about my mood or place in life. I just dig this poem and was going to share it eventually. So I did now, for no good reason.)

Here are some comments posted on the original blog:

Posted by Dreamspinner on Jan 28, 2006 8:25 AM

This is powerful poetry. Considering the circumstances surrounding its composition, it is understandably martyrlike in tone. Youthful passion and impetuosity coupled with religious zeal can create a fearsome force. When we revisit the barbarous times in which Tichborne lived, we know that he counted the cost of his actions before he committed them. And yet he committed them none-the-less.

The romanticist in me marvels at the notion of his composing this stirring and bittersweet ode to his truncated life. But the skeptic in me wonders who in their right mind sits down and composes such emotive couplets when his head is being removed the next day. Maybe he wasn't in his right mind by then, but I'm inclined to believe he formed the bulk of it somewhat beforehand, likely the days or weeks between being arrested and being executed.

None-the-less, it stands as a compelling work. Perhaps even more so because, by the very nature of the poem, we can have no other offerings from this poet.

Posted by Rich Fry on Jan 28, 2006 2:21 PM

To that skeptic in you I speak: There were times in my past when I felt the most hopeless, when I'd been singularly and selfishly sorrowful, and wrote rather emotionally, with care to form and structure intact.

This could have been a well-spoken man who never put his words down. Wallowing in extreme and hopeless misery can be a crucible for the sorrow's purity. His words are fairly simple, and yet they flow with a focus. Perhaps he is sulking in the utter gloom of it, perhaps this poem was an eloquent pity-party. It's certainly a poem of bitter despair, of a life not fully realized. This is a man captured and condemned, a slave to doom, who holds no hope of reprieve; and in this state he realizes what a waste this action has made of his life. Or he could have felt that he never really had a chance.

I agree that in the days and weeks leading up to his death, he might have formed these words in his head and finally written them the night before. Or, perhaps on that night, in the final crucible of his life's reflection, he found a place (right mind or not) where his words finally arrived.

Posted by Mark Lee on Jan 28, 2006 1:51 PM

Stirring, tiny literary deposit from an interesting time.

Reminds me of the spare, somewhat more mature poetry of Lt. Morant as performed by the inimitable Edward Woodward in the Aussie flick Breaker Morant. "Breaker" (he worked horses) Morant wrote some of his stuff prior to his execution in South Africa stemming from charges he misbehaved during the Boer War there.