Friday, 13 March 2015

Pot of Poetry: When You're about to Die (Tichborne's Elegy)

What would you say if you know that you're about to die, tragically? What kind of farewell would you choose to say to those who love you, or, more importantly, to those whom you love?

There's a rather nice country music about that inspired by Tennyson's Lady of Shallott. But today we'll go further back to those times when everybody spoke poetry - Elizabethan/Jacobean England.

Picture yourself in the scariest jail in the country, The Tower, waiting for execution. You know it will come, you just don't know for sure when. Every sun that sets might be your last, every thought you think might perish with your body an hour from now, every memory of you might be forgotten before the year changes, everything that you have done might mean nothing at all. What would you say to your family, to fate, or to God?

It's difficult to picture myself saying anything worthy at all under that kind of situation. At least, fear doesn't help when you're trying to rhyme. What would? Resignation? Acceptance of your fate?

In 1586, Chidiock Tichborne was going to face Death. His crime? Treason. As a Catholic, he was persecuted for his religion during the later years of his life, and, maybe because of that, he agreed to take part in Babington Plot to murder Elizabeth and put Mary of Scot on the throne. The method of execution was too gruesome to be told, but it's enough to make anybody sane sick to his stomach. Instead of writing, I would picture myself weeping on the floor begging somebody to spare me the pain and humiliation.

No, not Tichborne. He spent his time writing to his wife one of the most touching Elegies I've ever read.

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 gone and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done. 
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
The fruit is dead, and yet the 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 was not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done. 
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I lookt for life and saw it was a shade,
I trode the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made.
The glass is full, and now the glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
Poor, unfortunate 23-years-old. He was executed the day after.

Tichborne was not the only one who stared at death with a pen in his hand. There's another one, who has been one of my favourites: Sir Walter Raleigh.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth I, King James didn't share my sentiments for him. Raleigh was convicted and tried for treason, released 13 years later, only to be jailed again - and this time, executed. Before he died, he wrote this poem. For a man who had been so bitter in his other poems, this kind of calm resignation makes me tremble. I mean, he was the one who wrote The Lie, telling people and abstract things to shut up while he publicly accuse them of lying.

But maybe in the end, when everything is about to dissolve, when we feel worthless, unimportant, and hopeless, our only hope is to be alive again. "My God shall rise me up, I trust."

I hope he will.


Any poetical last words you want to share?

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