Tichborne’s Elegy

This poem was apparently written in the Tower of London by the imprisoned Chidiock Tichborne, a young Catholic conspirator against Queen Elizabeth, the night before he was executed. Whether this account is true or not, whoever wrote the poem achieved an amazing force of plainness. The poem shows how powerful unadorned language can be and what genius it takes to give such language emotional bite. Tremendous feeling is generated by the directness, the straightforward hammering of repeated formula and refrain, above all the plainness of language: Except for the contestable exception “fall’n,” the poem is written entirely in words of one syllable! It feels as if the poet has no time for anything but stark truth—and that feeling is attained by writing so artful that it seems nearly artless.
                                                                  —Robert Pinsky

Written with his own 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 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.