Facing Death With Poetry: How Chidiock Tichborne Wrote His Own Elegy

Chidiock Tichborne
Chidiock Tichborne, writer of his own Elegy and
conspirator of the Babington Plot.

Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy, the first poem mentioned in the Poems That Make Grown Cry anthology, caught me completely by surprise.

Reading it prompted one of those rare moments where you stop, look up from the page, and ponder what you’ve just read. I’d say this was partly due to the unimaginable circumstances under which the Elegy was written, but also because of the moving introduction by David McVicar in Anthony and Ben Holden’s anthology.

Tichborne, McVicar tells us, was a conspirator in the 1586 Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and rescue Mary Stuart from captivity. Imprisoned and at the hand of the courts, Tichborne wrote a letter to his wife, Agnes, just days before he was to receive his punishment.

Within the letter was a poem he compiled to reflect on his situation, his Elegy, and, just days later, he was executed.

Knowing this background makes a modern reading of Tichborne’s Elegy so moving and poignant, regardless of whether you view its author as a terrorist, a martyr, or simply a man about to face a hideous punishment.

His Elegy isn’t simply a reflection on life, but rather the thoughts of a real person about to have his life cut short. We realise that Tichborne hasn’t yet had a change to live properly: he’s not ready to accept death, and – as a young man who should have his life ahead of him – this is completely just.

In his remaining days, if not hours, of existence, Tichborne turns to art not only as catharsis, but also to create a legacy for his short existence.

Tychbornes Elegie, written with his owne hand in the Tower before his execution

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.

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.

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.

After reading this poem constructed under the most horrendous of circumstances, I can’t help but cultivate gratitude and be thankful for my own life. Poetry, life and death really do go hand in hand, don’t they?

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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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