‘Tichborne’s Elegy’ by Chidiock Tichborne is a three stanza poem which is separated into sets of six lines, or sestets Each of these sestets follows a pattern of ababcc. The first four lines of the stanza alternate in their end rhymes, while the concluding couplets adhere to the end sound, “-un.”
One should also take note of the fact that each stanza ends with the same line. This refrain emphasizes the fact that the speaker’s life will soon end. Its appearance three times does not allow a reader to forget what is at stake for the writer.
Unlike most poems, it is a well-known fact that the speaker of ’Tichborne’s Elegy’ is in fact the poet himself. Chidiock Tichborne was born into a Catholic family in the year 1558. It was also around this time that Elizabeth I made Catholicism illegal. He and his father rebelled against this practice and joined the Babington Plot. The group’s goal of was to assassinate the queen and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.
Tichborne was arrested and imprisoned. It was during his imprisonment that this poem was written. It was sent with a letter to his wife Agnes from the tower of London on the evening before his execution was scheduled to take place.
Summary of Tichborne’s Elegy
‘Tichborne’s Elegy’ by Chidiock Tichborne describes the fears and regrets of Tichborne as he faced a certain death the following day for planning regicide.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that his youth has frozen over. He can no longer access his past happiness, or even present happiness. This is due to the fact that he is imprisoned in the Tower of London and due to be executed the next day. He speaks of how his life had so much potential but now it has nothing. His life is a field of “tares,” or weeds which resemble corn. There is no reason for him to hope.
The next stanza speaks on how the narrator lived his life. He has a number of regrets which he can do nothing about at this point. He sees himself as a fruiting tree which is still green, as if containing untapped potential. In the final stanza his hourglass runs out and he nears his death.
Analysis of Tichborne’s Elegy
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.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker outlines how, and in what way, his youth is declining. He is able to see himself from an outsider’s perspective and understand that his life is drawing to a close. These lines are especially haunting when considered alongside the fact that the writer, Tichborne, was executed shortly after it was written. To learn more about the historical background associated with this piece, see the introduction.
The first lines of ‘Tichborne’s Elegy’ state that the speaker, who is Tichborne himself, knows his “youth is but a frost of cares.” It is so far in his past that all the cares which once bothered him are frosted over. They are no longer accessible or meaningful in his present situation.
In addition to losing his connection to the past, the speaker is also denied the “joy” which he might experience in the present. It is to him now nothing but a “dish of paine.” Since the poet is imprisoned, he has no means of experiencing joy. The next lines describe his “Crop of corn,” or his future, as being “a field of tares.” This refers to a type of weed which was damaging to crops but looked like young corn.
He sees no purpose in hoping for something good as there is no way for him to “gaine.” Tichborne is unable to change his present situation, he knows his “life is done.” The poet has spent the last day, and days, in a place which sees “no sunne.”
A reader should take note of the fact that this stanza, and the two which follow, end with the same line, “And now I live, and now my life is done.” Simply put, he has lived his life, and is currently living now, but his life is mostly done. There is no reason to live the last days.
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.
In the second stanza the speaker describes his efforts to get himself out of his present situation. He has in the past told his “tale.” It was “heard” by some but not understood. This means that either his words were misconstrued (purposefully or on accident) or no one listens in the first place.
The next lines are used to compare his own life, and current state of being, to that of a fruit tree. He describes himself as having lost his fruit, or his abilities, but that his “leaves are greene.” The speaker feels his own life force and knows he still has potential. His life shouldn’t have to end now.
The following phrases describes the fact that his “youth” is over but that doesn’t mean his life has to be. He is not old. The speaker “saw the world” but was not “seene” by it. He has been misunderstood by the people and places he has encountered. This phase is built on by the two which follow it. His “thred,” or thread, has been cut by the forces which placed him in prison, before it ever got a chance to be “spunne,” or spun. He never got to make a life for himself. His years have gone to waste.
The second stanza ends with the same line which appears at the end of the first and third stanzas. It adds to the contradictions of time which have appeared throughout the next so far. It is as if the past and present are happening at the same time. The speaker brings them both together to mourn the loss of the future.
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
The first line of this stanza utilizes the same confusing structure as those within the previous two stanzas. He states that “sought’ out his own death and found it “in my wombe.” As a reader will learn from the introduction, it was his familial religion, Catholicism, and his dedication to its cause that sent him to his death.
The speaker describes how his time on earth was spent in his on “Tombe.” Every step he took led him closer to his own death. His life was more of a “shade” than a real existence.
The last three lines of the poem describes how the speaker’s time is running out. His “glasse” or willingness to live is “full” but it is all “runne,” or running out. He has no more time left on earth, his execution is right around the corner.