Chidiock Tichborne (1558-1586)


     Chidiock (also known as Charles) Tichborne was imprisoned at the age of 28 in the Tower of London awaiting execution when he wrote this haunting poem and sent it to his wife just days before he died. Tichborne was born into a Roman Catholic family and had been involved in a plot against the queen (Elizabeth I) because she had banned Catholics from practicing their religion. The ban was in retaliation for the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth from the church for her support of Protestant causes.
     This is his only known written work of any kind, and no doubt Tichborne would be merely a long-forgotten name in an ancient logbook listing executed prisoners were it not for this poem. Two slightly different versions have come down to us through the centuries, due to minor revisions made by the publisher when it was first printed and became popular soon after Tichborne’s death. The version printed here is the revised version. The original probably did not have a formal title, thus it is most often known simply as ‘Tichborne’s Elegy,’ but it is sometimes printed with a title of ‘My Prime of Youth is but a Frost of Cares.’ The poem’s long series of metaphors, the contrasting opposition that repeats in each line emphasizing the promise of youth cut short by a premature death, and its simple, metronomic cadence make it memorable, like the chorus of a song you can’t get out of your head:  “And now I live, and now my life is done....”
     Being written so long ago, a few words or their specific usage in this poem may need clarification:
Line 3:  “tares” means weeds, or the waste from a harvest.
Line 11:  “thread” refers to the Greek myth of the three fates:  Clotho, who spun out the thread of a person’s life; Lachesis, who decided how long the thread would be (how long a life); and Atropos, who cut the thread when a person’s appointed time for death came.
Line 14:  “shade” in this instance would be the less-common dictionary definition; a specter, ghost, apparition, or phantom.
Line 17:  “glass” means an hourglass, i.e., one whose sand has now run out.



Tichborne’s Elegy

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.