Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tichborne's Elegy - Chidiock Tichborne

Composed the night before his execution, Tichborne's Elegy piles metaphor upon metaphor to express his regret and frustration upon his life being cut short whilst he is still in his prime. He was only twenty-eight years old at the time, but was sentenced to death because he had been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Written in the first person, almost every line begins with the word 'I' or 'My', showing us how self-absorbed the poet was in his last hours.

The poem comprises three stanzas, each of six lines. The word 'but', appearing in each of the first four lines, might be translated as 'just' in contemporary English. The first line tells us that although the poet is young, his life is a 'frost', cold and joyless, and full of worries because of his actions and his impending death. The following line refers again to his life, or his youth, which should have been the most fulfilling period but instead is 'a dish of pain', a time that is hard to bear. Then there is an agricultural metaphor, in which the poet expresses the fact that his 'crop of corn' has actually yielded a field of weeds (tares), meaning that nothing worthwhile has resulted from his short life. Line 4 explains that the only way the poet has benefited from his life is in hoping to make an achievement, but he has not in fact done so. The following line begins 'The day is past', a metaphor meaning that the poet's life has ended, and concludes 'and yet I saw no sun' – nothing worthwhile or advantageous has resulted from his life. The final line of the first stanza is identical to the last line of the second and third stanzas, emphasizing the fact that although the poet is alive at the actual time of composing the poem, he knows that his life has virtually come to an end.

The second stanza continues the pattern of metaphors, 'My tale was heard' meaning that the poet has had a life, 'and yet it was not told' expressing the frustration that his life was not lived to the full. Tichborne then compares his life to a tree, where the fruit has ripened and fallen to the ground, because his life is about to end; but 'my leaves are green' tells us that he is still young. This same idea is clearly conveyed in line 9, and line 10 expresses the concept that although the poet 'saw the world', because he was born, he 'was not seen', as nothing positive has come of his short life. Another metaphor follows, 'My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun' telling us that his life is ending even though he has not lived it out. The stanza concludes in exactly the same way as the first one.

The opening of the third and final stanza shows us the the poet considers that he was doomed even before he was born, and that as his life progressed he sensed it was to be cut short. He feels that his life has only just begun and yet it is about to end. Line 17 is a metaphor centred around the image of an hourglass, a little device like an egg-timer through which sand runs from top to bottom in the space of a few minutes. Tichborne knows that because of his youth he should have years of his life left, but his 'glass is run', meaning that the sand has all passed through and his time on earth has run out. Once again, the final line is exactly like that of the first two stanzas.

The poem is regular in its rhythm and rhyme scheme; the repetition or similarity in the structure of many of the lines is offset by the abundant use of metaphors which are the highlight of this work. The poet focusses purely on his own situation here and there is no reference at all to loved ones he is leaving behind or to his fellow conspirators.
'Tichborne's Elegy' is a fine poem full of metaphorical imagery. There is perhaps an element of irony in that the poet expresses the idea that he has achieved nothing in his short life, and yet he composed a masterpiece on the eve of his execution. His frustration and deep regret in fact inspired him to do so; to create such a poem when he must have been in the depths of despair is to be wondered at.

Here is the full text of the poem:

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.

Chidiock Tichborne

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