Tichborne’s Elegy

Chidiock Tichborne (c.1562-1586)

AG: One thing we forgot was  Chidiock Tichborne‘s elegy (on page one-three-two). That has a really pretty tune. I overlooked it last time – (one-thirty-two of the Norton (anthology)). Written in his own hand, in the tower, before his execution. So, he only had a few.. like..  that day to live. So what did he have to say? – It’s really great and it’s on the same line as Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Lie” (remember we did that.. “”Tell men of high condition,/That manage the estate,/Their purpose is ambition… give them all the lie.” – “Tell flesh it is but dust, tell time it is but motion [“Tell time it is but motion;/Tell flesh it is but dust”] – So this is Tichborne’s version of last days

“My prime of youth is but a frost of cares/My feast of joy is but a dish of pain” (which must be.. is actually true, he’s sitting up there waiting, suddenly realizing he’s going to get it, from here on there’s no way out – “a dish of pain” (the food he’s eating – he looks at it and is nauseous, probably)

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares/My feast of joy is but a dish of pain”  “A dish of pain” is funny, actually, it’s a Surrealist line, image – “a dish of pain” – (“Give me a dish of pain!”  – “What do you want to eat?” – “I’ll have a dish of pain!”)

Student : (What kind of) dish?  I assume they had a dish or something, you know… after the guillotine chopped off the head, there was, like, a dish..
AG: Yeah  probably, yeah. Yeah, it’s probably literal.
Student 2:  They didn’t use guillotines then, (in those days) it would just be an axe
AG: Axe, yeah, well…(and) a basket – “My feast of joy is but a basket of pain” –
[to Student]  – You know anything about Tichborne, particularly, personally, in terms of his life?
Student: Do you know why he was executed?

AG: No, no I don’t know very much about him historically. I suppose he insulted the Queen or whoever, or didn’t pay his debt, or screwed somebody’s wife at the wrong time, was caught cocksucking under Windsor Castle roof, or something. No, probably political, I bet he was a spy or something. I don’t know.  [Editorial note – Tichborne was executed in 1586, along with several others, for his part in the Babington Plot, a plot to murder the reigning Queen, the Protestant  Queen Elizabeth I, and replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who was next in line on the throne]But the opposition, line by line, is really great, you know, like presentation of what the possible hope is, you know the pleasure of being yooung and happy and pink-cheeked and all of a sudden “dish of pain”, and in every line it goes through. And so because it goes through with this statement and counter-statement, statement and counter-statement, line by line, it’s a great form . In fact, this is one of the great forms that runs through English poetry, like a proposal and a counter-proposal, all done really fast. In a way, it’s similar to Raleigh’s “..Lie” (Tell love it is but lust/Tell time it is but motion“), and we’ll get more of these poems, as time goes on, with this sort of, like, formula, almost, of a presentation of the immediacy and vividness and delight of life, and then, all of a sudden, this knife-cut in the middle of the line saying how really horrible it is.

And it’s very similar to a basic Buddhist notion (except this is the English version of the basic Buddhist notion) of First Noble Truth, (that (Jack) Kerouac was really interested in. and centered in on) which is the essential suffering and painfulness of existence – that existence contains suffering. The Buddhist form is, like, (a little formula I repeat every day before I do meditation prostration things), is “Fortunate to be born in human body. Difficult to achieve, free and well-favored. But death is real. This body will be a corpse.” –  (the next thought! – It’s like a present-day “aha!, life is over…”But death is real”, “This body will be a corpse” – It’s absolutely literal. I mean, the more you… All you have to do is break your leg once and you recognize that, you know, or, (get) run over by a truck and get your teeth broken, or your nose broken.

“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 nowI was but made;/My glass is full and now my glass is run,/And now I live and now my life is done.
The “now” is great because, you see, it’s like, he’s going to be executed that night, maybe – or was it on the eve of his execution that? –  well, maybe a week before he was executed, but maybe that night.  But it’s absolutely..  I mean, you don’t have to be executed to get that, for it to be true (because you’re going to be executed either way, you know, you’re going to die, in one way or the other). And now… except..  the particular poignancy of “My youth is spent and yet I am not old/I saw the world and yet I was not seen” – that’s really sweet, it’s like..like everybody in Wichita, Kansas – I saw the world and yet I was not seen”  – You know, it’s like.. It’s actually the great American lament, or “Elegy in A Country Graveyard” by Thomas Gray
–  the “Full many… ” [“Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen“] about all the “lipless Milton’s”, or something, something like that, [“Some mute inglorious Milton [sic] here may rest”], all the great generals and epic poets that lived and died in this little country town unrecognized because they never did anything, but, you know, had the same mentality and the same ambition, except, maybe even wiser – What is it..?  “Full many a youth..?” “Full many a flower is born to fade unseen..”?  How does that go? Does anybody know that? “Full many a flower is born to fade unseen..? – Does anybody know that? Country Churchyard Elegy?  No?  Anybody hear of it ever?
Student: Yeah
AG: Yeah..let’s check it out..There’s one.. just because the theme is interesting – Grey’s “Elegy (Written) in A Country Churchyard”
Student: (Page)five-oh-eight..
AG: Five-oh-eight – Actually, it’s a pretty great poem. I’ll just find one or two (lines)..oh yeah, line fifty-three (page five-oh-nine) – he’s in a country churchyard, he’s looking at all these graves, and saying, “Wow, all these people lived and died..” – “Full many a gem of purest ray serene,/The dark unfathom’d caves of oceans bear;/Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen..” – just like that..that reminded me..”I saw the world and yet I was not seen” – “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” –  “Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast/The little tyrant of his fields withstood/Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,/Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood”  (that’s just those two, two lines)
Student: The age of heroism.
AG: Huh?
Student: The age of heroism.
AG: Well, it’s sort of the anti-hero here.  Then the epitaph at the end – “Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth/A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown./Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth/And Melancholy mark’d him for her own..” (Well, also.. then it gets a little more charmingly sentimental )- just the notion of that “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen“.
But here is the flower (Tichborne) “born to blush unseen“, as he’s saying, (“I saw the world and yet I was not seen“), and yet, at the last moment, he uttered this one perfect piece of music and sense, which has come right up to Casey Junior High School (classroom)  [location of the class], 1980. So he actually got his soul up to emit this little burst of perfect appreciation of the earth, of his existence.
But what for? I wonder why he.. Why would anyone want to emit a bust of melody on their own existence just before they were going to get their head chopped off by an axe?
Student: What’s the answer?
AG: Well, it’s just an interesting thought. I wasn’t saying there was no answer or is an answer, there’s just….
Student: Nothing else of his has ever been found?
AG: Pardon me?
Student: Nothing else of his has ever been found?

AG: No, I think there’s quite a bit of scribblings that he did in his life and probably some’s very good, (if this is that good, there’s probably other..). Actually, I’ve never checked out.. I’ve known.. This poem I’ve known since childhood and.. because that refrain is so beatiful – “And now I live and now my life is done” – both at once  – “And now I live and now my life is done” or “Right now I’m living, and in a minute my life will be done” – but I like the way he emphasizes and now my life is done”, in the sense of  “and now” meaning “the next minute”, “at any minute, my life is done”, or “right at this minute, I realize that my life is done”, (“even though I’m living, I realize that it’s all over, no way out”)So.. But the mentality then of that utter moment of, at the verge of death, what would people do? – I don’t know if I would be able to write a poem. I might get mad, get involved with real anger and stuff, you know, cursing out everybody and screaming and get shit in my pants,  or cower in the corner, or try to make up to my captors. I don’t know, but he, apparently…

Student: It’s difficult to say.
AG: Yeah, but, apparently, he had the..  some kind of presence of mind, that’s exhibited here, that’s amazing, to make it so right (I mean, a piece of philosophy that’s so right, anyway) – lamenting that he’s going, but the lament here, there’s nothing self-pitying or sad in it – it’s just sort of a statement of the emotional poignant actuality of the scene and really is an appreciation of how “fortunate to be born in human body, difficult to achieve, free and well-favored” (he realized it was), right on that moment. Well, it’s like a warning. So it wasn’t..  So he was saying, like, “I really realize this now, and so I’ll make this poem to warn other people to really appreciate what they’ve got while they’ve got it” –
But it’s just a poem in anthologies, so who gives a shit anyway! – I mean “just another pretty poem in an anthology” –  But this is his death note!, suicide note, or, you know, last thing, manuscript found in a bottle sent out to eternity!

So it’s good advice, and it’s not..  But it’s funny, all these guys around this time (Elizabethan times), get that same cutting-through, intelligent, insight into the brevity of existence and the poignancy of existence, the mortal flash of it, and also the [“Age and age’s evils, hoar hair/Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay”] “dust’s old-age and ages evil’s ruck and wrinkled dying drooping deathwards tombs and worms and winding-sheets and tumbling to decay”, all that kind of…  (that’s Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1880)  – death and death’s worst, age and age’s evil’s, dying drooping death and death’s worst…. I’ve forgotten… I had it right the first time..  what is it? a dying drooping death and death’s worst age and age’s evils ruck and wrinkle dying”.. “ruck and wrinke aging..” is..  oh, I forget, I’ll have to play back the tape to get it again. (It’s) probably in here [in the anthology] – “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”. That was… it’s not in there, I think… One line from   “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” by Gerard Manley Hopkins – “Age and age’s evils, hoar hair/Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s  worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay” – It’s one line!  –

So all these guys around the Elizabethan times get this cut through life, you know. It’s not like nineteenth-century poetry, where people are sort of gloomy in the middle of the afternoon and write these huge long endless poems about all the little details of the Autumn afternoon and the long Winter evenings, and everything seems to be permanent and eternal and go on for ever and ever. These ones have “Tell love it is but lust;/Tell time it is but motion,/ Tell flesh it is but dust” and it’s very abrupt (like that other one of Raleigh’s “Turns snow and..milk…” “snow and silk and milk to dust” – that still is a great line – “Turns snow and silk and milk to dust”, remember? (page one-thirty-seven)?  – “Turns snow and silk and milk to dust

[Audio for the above may be heard  here, beginning at approximately fifty minutes in and concluding at approximately sixty-five minutes in ] 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *