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On the Eve of His Execution -- Chidiock Tichborne

Guest Poem sent in by Siddhartha Joshi
(Poem #144) 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, 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
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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