Written The Night Before His Execution

 Overview

Now our poetry collection moves onto some hardcore reflection on mortality.

This poem, as the title suggests, was written the night before Tichbourne was due to get the big chop and he isn’t particularly happy about it. He’s reflecting on how little his life has been fulfilled, but sees his demise as an inevitable consequence of his birth (I’m being deliberately cryptic so you’ll read on!)

 

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;
My life is fled, 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 be 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 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 am but made:
The glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Chidiock Tichbourne (1563-1586)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem or click here to check out an excellent powerpoint presentation about the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

The 16th Century was a simpler time and many more people were truly devoted to their faith as the TV was still some 400 odd years away from being invented. Nowadays the world, Europe in particular, has less and less hardliners and on the whole everyone tolerates others faiths. However, Tichbourne was born a Catholic in England at a time where they were being hounded and harassed by the Protestants. Many influential Catholics spent their time trying to devise a way to get a Catholic monarch back on the throne to re-establish their freedom to worship.

Tichbourne was involved in one such plot to replace the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, but his plans were evidently not discreet enough as he was caught and tried for high treason – a crime punishable by death. While his faith clearly played a part in his involvement in this plot, it is also clear that the way Catholics were alienated from power and influence at court and often persecuted for any sign of papal worship and as a result were likely to be a bit ticked off.

Anyway, he was caught and he was executed. Some of my sources (random internet fragments, predominantly Wikipedia) suggest he died at 23, while others claim he was 28. Either way, he was pretty young and in this poem we can see that he believes that he is dying too young, without the chance to experience some of the most interesting or important aspects of life.

The poem was scrawled in his final letter to his wife.

 

 Themes

The main one here is obviously mortality and Tichbourne’s struggle to deal with it and the regrets he harbours over what he will never see, be or do. However, there is also quite a strong religious theme as he sees himself as dying for and because of his faith.

 Content

I don’t know why, but I get the impression I wouldn’t have liked Tichbourne. There is a terrible colloquial expression in England that aptly fits his situation: ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.’

Admittedly, in Tichbourne’s case, the time would be death, but the point remains: if he wasn’t prepared to die then he shouldn’t have been involved in a threat to remove the Queen.

Anyway, I digress, on with the analysis.

The whole poem considers his thoughts while he waits to be executed the following day. In the opening stanza he presents us with a series of oxymoronic statements contrasting his position as a young man with the fact he is condemned to death. The first three lines suggest he is in the spring of his life (young), happy and has the means to enjoy life, but also that he is in the winter of his life (approaching death), deeply unhappy/pained and unable to enjoy his life. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this reflects his situation, about to be deprived of his life due to his actions, but before his natural expiry date.

At the end of this stanza he is fatalistic and says ‘My life is fled’ meaning he harbours no hope of a pardon or escape and accepts absolutely that his life will end; instead he is miserable about the fact that he feels he has not seen enough of life. The last line is repeated in all three stanzas and highlights the fact that his death is certain and yet he has so much life yet to live.

He continues in the same vein in the second. He uses similes to compare his situation to nature and I’ll explore some of them in the next section and their connotations. Other than that there’s nothing really new here, so I’ll skip on.

The third stanza is a bit more interesting. Now we are dealing with why he thinks he is in this situation. He suggests that his death was an inevitable consequence of being born a Catholic; when he tried to live his life normally he says he ‘saw it was a shade’, which implies that the restrictions on Catholic worship in England and the disfavour of Catholic families meant that he could never truly live in the full sun – have the freedom and opportunities he would otherwise have enjoyed without his faith.

Does he also suggest that he is dying as a martyr and destined for heaven? He admits he will die, but also says ‘I am but made’, which could either mean he has achieved something as a martyr to his faith or it could just mean that he feels he has only just been born.

 

 Language and techniques

Okay, I’ve decided to be nice and go through pretty much all of the oxymoronic metaphors used in the first two stanzas – I’ve missed out a couple that either are self-evident or are uninteresting. Please understand the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m stuck in an internal invigilation for Year 8 and feel like I’m slowly going mad in the silence.

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Stanza 1

Line 1 – ‘prime of youth’ vs. ‘frost of cares’
best point in life; spring of life; full of options, opportunities and trouble free vs. winter of his life, approaching the end, miserable with worries.
Oxymoron because – he’s at the best stage of his life and yet he is also at the end. 

Line 2 – ‘feast of joy’ vs. ‘dish of pain’
most enjoyable point of his life; a happy time filled with many options (courses at the feast) vs. life of pain and misery; the only dish he can eat is going to kill him.
Oxymoron because – feast are great and all about huge variety and opportunity, but he is constricted to one pretty ugly prospect of a dish!

Line 3 – ‘crop of corn’ vs. ‘field of tares’
a full and fertile field (connotations about his own fertility at this age) vs. a field whose crop has failed and is all wasted.
Oxymoron because – he stresses his fertility and that this is his time for procreation, but also that his potency is now useless and he won’t get a chance to have any kiddiwinks.

Stanza 2 – notice that he changes now and starts with the negative reflection on the certainty of his death rather than all the facts that suggest he is too young to die and will be a wasted life. Pessimism taken over?

Line 1 – ‘spring is past’ vs. ‘hath not sprung’
his youth is over vs. he’s not had a chance to enjoy his youth.
Oxymoron because – how can spring be over and yet you’ve not experienced spring?

Line 2 – ‘fruit is dead’ vs. ‘leaves be green’
chance of demonstrating his fertility over; no more joy vs. still young and healthy/fertile.
Oxymoron because – when trees are full of green leaves they are also fertile. No fruit indicates a tree that has shed its leaves for winter.

Line 3 – ‘youth is gone’ vs. ‘I am but young’
youth over vs. he’s still young.
Oxymoron because – youth can’t be over if you’re still young (well, it can, but you see how the idea is a bit contradictory).

 Line 4 – ‘I saw the world’ vs. ‘yet I was not seen’
Just about understanding how the world works vs. not had a chance to make his mark on the world yet.
Oxymoron because – if you see the world, then surely it sees you? Well, yes literally, but it does make a fair amount of sense the way he phrases this – he’s not had the chance to achieve anything or leave the world with anything to remember him by.

Line 5 – ‘my thread is cut’ vs. ‘yet it is not spun’
nice little metaphor for the journey of life, being woven with your thread – the tapestry of life vs. the thread has not even been spun into yarn and therefore the story of his life cannot even have begun.
Oxymoron because – if it hasn’t been made how can it be cut?
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Other things to mention

It’s important that you talk about all the comparison with nature. His life is compared to different aspects of the outside world in spring time, but also in winter as he struggles to reconcile the fact that he is young and healthy with the fact he will no longer exist tomorrow.

The phrase ‘frost of cares’ links us to winter and immediately makes us associate his existences with being cold and miserable, but also winter suggest ending and death, while cares indicate that he is not at peace with his death, but troubled by the thoughts of what he is missing out on.

Then we’ve got the imagery of the ‘field of tares’ (wasted crops/destroyed) and the  ‘fruit is dead’, which again link us to winter when the trees are bare and the crops are stunted by the frost and lack of sun and so unable to produce.

Contrast this deathly winter with his actual state of health and existence, which is described as ‘prime of youth’, so the pinnacle of his existence, or with green leaves. These ideas create an image of a man who is at his least vulnerable to death, is as fit and as healthy as he could ever be, and yet he is condemned to death and he finds it a cruel irony.

I also like two lines I’ve yet to mention. In the fifth line of both stanza one and two we get a clear expression of misery and regret. ‘My life is fled’ and ‘My thread is cut’ are both definitive statements that he doesn’t doubt at all, he is positive he will die and has no hope whatsoever. However, he is filled with depression when he says ‘yet I saw no sun’ and ‘yet it is not spun’ as both of these suggest that he has not even begun to have lived a full life or to have enjoyed himself.

Bloody hell, this is now quite a long section. I’m jumping to the last stanza now as I’ve said nothing about it so far.

Some really interesting ideas here. The first line says that he ‘found [his death] in my womb’, which sounds very cryptic, but is actually a lovely expression for his situation. He means that his birth as a Catholic is what has condemned him to this fate as he had no other choice but to plot against Elizabeth I. Now, that’s not strictly true, but should be seen as a mark of his commitment to his faith, that he felt he had to fight for it in this way. He also talks about how his Catholicism made life seems like ‘it was a shade’. Shade suggests something is covered in shadow or not at its brightest, a bit cold and miserable, which could reflect the fact he was never able to enjoy the privilege or opportunity his life without Catholicism would have been able to have.

I mentioned the expression ‘I am but made’ above, but it might be interesting if you talked about the two different interpretations – he’s only just been made, as in has only been alive for a few years; and he is going to become a martyr.

Finally (hurrah!) let’s deal with the repeated last line of each stanza. ‘And now I live, and now my life is done’ is again a statement of certainty and demonstrates how miserable he feels that his life will be cut short. The fact it is repeated three times drums the certainty of his fate into our minds, but it also seems to me like he is repeating it because he can find no hope or positive thought and keeps return to his doomed fate.

 

 Structure

Thankfully not too much to say here. The only things I’d mention are the fact that each line acts as two contradictory ideas to illustrate his frustration between his youth and the fact he is condemned, the repetition of the last line emphasising his lack of hope and the switching around of positive and negative portrayal of his life from the first stanza to the second (discussed in more detail above next to the little subheading Stanza 2).

 Tone

Bless Tichbourne, he’s a pretty miserable chap. This is one long wallow in his sadness which is caused by the complete absence of hope and the certainty of death.

You can also check out my notes in a Word version of the poem with my comments around it. Probably nothing you can’t read here, but it might be useful to print or use on the go:

Year 12 Notes for Written the Night Before His Execution (Word document)

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.

7 thoughts on “Written The Night Before His Execution”

  1. I have no way to thank you enough. I’m writing the paper 3 tomorrow, and your notes (and definitely your sense of humour) has made the process so much less tedious.

    Your analyses and personal comments are clear, matter-of-fact and very easy to understand and apply.

    Ever grateful.

  2. Hello Mr Sir,
    I just wanted to know whether, the phrase in line five, “yet I saw no sun” is foreshadowing or hinting towards his miserable life, up until his prime. I ask this because, it directly links up with the phrase in line 2 of stanza 3, “it was a shade”

    1. Hi Sajovs,

      Yeah, basically he’s saying that if we measured his life in the terms of a day (24 hours) he’s not yet got to the point where the sun is fully visible in the sky.

      I’m fairly sure the ‘it was a shade’ line is more to do with his life being somewhat stunted by his faith that meant he had to live part of his life in the shadows and keep his faith to himself.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

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