A Litany In Time Of Plague

 Overview

When I first read this poem I got the impression that it was about a preacher trying to convince people to show more devotion to their faith in order to attain salvation in death, but as I’ve just typed it out here I’ve realised I’d got it completely wrong.

Nashe, as you will see in the Context section, was a bit of a wrong one (like all good poets) and this poem is all about his fear about death. It is written as a prayer as he is desperately hoping he’ll be allowed through the pearly gates, but really he is reflecting on the devastating impact of the Black Death and how no one was exempt from its touch thanks to the lack of understanding about what caused this plague.

 

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
‘Come, come!’ the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Nashe is most famous as a pamphleteer. an odd career that now would see him working for some Chinese restaurant or another. In Elizabethan times a pamphleteer was a bit more prominent as pamphlets were one of the most effective ways to spread ideas or news across the country. Nashe’s pamphlets were apparently pretty controversial in theme and his poetry also caused a bit of a stir, see if you can work out why!:

And make me happie, stealing by degrees. First bare hir legs, then creepe up to her knees …

“Unhappyie me,” quoth she, “and wilt not stand? Com, let me rubb and chafe it with my hand!”

Do you really need to know this? No, but has it made you smile? No? Well, on with the relevant stuff then!

So, we’ve established he was a naughty boy and in no way deserving of salvation, now let’s talk about the Black Death. It was a plague that swept around Europe for hundreds of years and is estimated to have killed 200 million people. At the time people were particularly put out by it because they had no idea what was causing it and there was seemingly no cure and people from all reaches of life were effected equally: Queen Elizabeth I was really scared of the plague and devised various quarantine measures to protect herself.

You can imagine how an unexplained fatal disease killing everyone around you would make you a little terrified for your own life, feeling like the sword of Damocles is hanging over you head and making you seriously contemplate what happens next.

 

Themes

The big one here is obviously mortality, but it closely associated with salvations and therefore religious faith could be considered here too.

Content

Right, it’s six stanzas and it’ll take forever to do if I go through in too much detail so you’re going to have to be satisfied with an overview.

Let’s start with the title. The word litany is now quite commonly used, but at the time was derived from and focused on a service in a church. We can take a litany to be a series of prayers or the whole service, which aims to convey a message to a congregation listening to the priest or preacher delivering it.

The first stanza gives us an overview of what’s on Nashe’s mind; he’s a bit fixated on what he sees as the certainty of his approaching death. He mentions how much fun and joy there is in the world, but sees them as being overshadowed and made to seem inconsequential by the shadow of death (‘Death proves them [our joys] all but toys’) and our mortality. He tells us that ‘none from his darts can fly’ indicating the inevitability of death; we all know we’ll die, but he seems to be implying that none can escape from death from the plague as he says ‘I am sick, I must die’ as one inevitably leads to the other.

The following four stanzas effectively say the same thing: no one is safe from the plague and nothing will protect you. He starts off by addressing the wealthy and assures them ‘Gold cannot buy your health’. He’s a little bit wrong here as wealth probably would ensure a bit of distance from the plague and the wealthy wouldn’t live in the crowded, filthy and rat infested confines of the cities, so would probably be less likely. However, this is besides the point, he’s telling them their money won’t keep them safe.

Stanza 3 next addresses the beautiful and warns them that ‘wrinkles will devour’ them and their looks and that even beautiful Queens have died young. He uses a classical allusion in Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships… because she was so pretty the Greeks went to rescue her from her Trojan captors) as well to convey the idea of beauties dying young and thus telling the young that even they are not safe from the plague.

Strength and intelligence (‘wit’) are the next two subjects. Even the most powerful will eventually ‘feed’ for the worms, or rotting in the grave, again demonstrated with a classical allusion, this time to Hector (the Trojan hero). The intelligent are unable to argue their way out of their fate as ‘Hell’s executioner’, or the plague, has ‘no ears’ for them to appeal to.

So basically he’s saying that everyone is screwed and there is nothing you can do to avoid the plague. That should give you an impression of people felt at the time; this plague was almost like a sign of judgement day as  they didn’t know what caused it, it punished everyone equally and it a particularly unpleasant way to die.

But hang on! There is one way we can be saved… unfortunately it still requires us to die. Our only salvation is in heaven and Nashe is telling us to embrace our death, but make sure we have lived our lives in a way that will mean we can ‘mount… unto the sky’ and head off to heaven.

Lovely… Hmm…

 

Language and techniques

Hundreds of things to talk about, so don’t feel confined to the few examples I’ve chosen to zoom in on.

First of all I’d analyse the language used to describe the plague. We are told that ‘none’ can escape its ‘darts’ making our death seem like a certainty; it travels ‘full swift by’ as if it is an unstoppable wind; and once we’re sick, we die confirming that once affected there is no hope. These associations suggest that humanity has no chance of survival against this mysterious and unexplained disease.

Then we have the really disturbing imagery about how people die. There is certainly no glory in death as we might believe as ‘wrinkles devour’ beauty or consumed and distort it, while the strong are reduced to pathetic weaknesses as ‘worms feed’ upon their flesh with them unable to fight back. These images both have a literal association with the plague as huge blisters often formed on victims making them quite repulsive, while victims were reduced to extremely frail conditions thanks to fever and sickness (also suggested by the fact the strong ‘stoop to the grave’, almost unable to stand). However, these images are meant to shock us and make us scared of the disease and for our mortality.

I’d also mention how fatalistic the poet is. The plague did not effect everyone and yet we have an almost apocalyptic expression of the certainty of death that recurs throughout the poem again and again and again. Each stanza repeats the final two lines that link sickness absolutely with death and then beg for divine mercy, but we also get a unique element of the certainty of demise in each stanza:
1st – ‘None from his darts can fly’ – no one can escape from death/the plague.
2nd –  ‘All things to end are made’ – everything dies!
3rd – ‘wrinkles will devour’ – no uncertainty about decay.
4th – ‘Swords may not fight with fate’ – you cannot fight fate, death is inevitable.
5th – the first two lines… less convincing here – intelligence certain to be overcome by the bitterness of death.

Then you’ve got that last stanza and the last line of each stanza. ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’ is a desperate plea to a higher power to make things better the next place they go, a plea for salvation and against being damned to hell. The whole of this stanza seems to indicate the importance of faith as we’re told ‘To welcome destiny’ presumably by being morally good to please the lord, and that earth is just ‘a player’s stage’ meaning that it is sort of a rehearsal or an audition for the real deal of life in either heaven ‘our heritage’ or hell.

 

Structure

Well, the first thing to say is that this is a litany. It is set out as a prayer and deliberately sounds like one of those religious fables telling us how to live our lives – ultimately with God and faith at the centre.

We get the opening stanza setting the scene for the devastating impact of the plague as if it is actually destroying the whole world, as if it is beckoning judgement day. The middle stanzas show us things that people rely on while on earth, but proves how useless these things are against death/the plague. Finally, we are given the message about how we can defeat this certain death… by dying as good Christians and going to heaven.

I’ve already mentioned it above, but you could also discuss why the last two lines repeat in each stanza. Yes, it makes it like a prayer, but also it emphasises the certainty of death and the poet cannot escape this preoccupation with the end being nigh!

Tone

Pretty sombre as at every turn this guy wants to remind us and himself that he is certain to die… and in a pretty gruesome and debilitating way. However, there is also an element on preaching here as he is trying to tell us what we have to do – be good and die horrible, but live on in heaven.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

8 thoughts on “A Litany In Time Of Plague”

  1. Thank you soo much Mr sir,I enjoyed your analysis ,it brought about some realism .I like the fact that it is clear and straight to the point.please keep writing .unfortunately I cannot contribute,all my ideas have been covered… but wait…there is a rhyme scheme of aa bb cc d
    Ee ff by d …and so on until the end of the poem
    Which could be used to represent the finality of death through the d

  2. This is a favorite poem of mine, and I have enjoyed reading your analysis. I found it very insightful. Thomas Nashe was able to convey in these few stanzas a soul desperation that still resonates all these centuries later. The repetition of “Lord , have mercy on us!” and “I am sick, I must die” is so effective in conveying the hopelessness he felt. I think it also speaks of the hopelessness of those around him as well-a bit of a requiem for everyone. I like your interpretation that he found hope in the eternal in the end. I did not catch that before.

  3. i have read several of your analysis. and though i appreciate what you do, i have noticed a lot of your analysis suffer from laziness and a lack of formal analysis.

    “so basically we’re all screwed”
    I didn’t really need to see you write this to understand this part of the poem.

    I understand you warn with having to be satisfied with a brief overview in the beginning (content) but I can’t help but feel there isn’t much you analyze or bring up to the conversation on the table.

    isn’t it interesting that the author uses senses throughout the poem? such as his play of words on LIGHT of life (“fade”, “brightness falls from…”) which alludes to our vision. he also talks of bells and the executioner has no ears which is about our hearing. then even talks about “bitterness” which refers to the way people who are alive can taste. the wrinkles are also something we can see as beauty is NOT safe, but also something we can touch.

    being able to sense is what makes people ‘feel’ alive. so it’s interesting he talks about all of these sense throughout the poem, maybe to allude that these senses will maybe disappear along with our mortality.

    i would have loved to have read something along the lines of this from you and your analysis instead of, “So basically he’s saying that everyone i….” which provides very little analysis or utility in understanding the text deeper.

    1. Thanks for contributing. While I agree that my analysis is not always written in the most formal manner, I think you’re not appreciating the sheer volume of work I have put into this site. I could stop and explore everything in minutiae, but that would’ve killed me and made everything take twice as long.

      In addition, my analysis is not meant to provide every interpretation and write everyone’s essays, but rather a place for me to try to break down the overarching ideas and make the poems accessible to students. I wish this could always be done in a way to please everyone, but that simply isn’t possible.

      If you see an area where you feel you can add insight, please by all means comment with your view/formal analysis and let others benefit from reading it. However, I feel saying my work suffers ‘from laziness’ is a bit ungrateful and bearing in mind that I do not get paid (the website actually costs me about £100 a year at the moment) I think I am doing a pretty good job.

      1. I sincerely apologize on his behalf. Your response to his observation is spot on. May God reward your labour of love. Thanks all the way.

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