My Prime Of Youth Is But A Frost Of Cares

While looking up information on Irish politics about the choice of a new leader, and the narrow margin of the minority government led by Fine Gael, I came across a poem mistitled and misattributed and with a curious introduction showing that it had been written by a young man who had gotten caught up in a conspiracy against Elizabeth I [1], written as he faced his certain and gruesome doom as a traitor to the realm. I found the context somewhat unsetting, knowing the Irish tendency to glorify martyrs to their undying hostility against perfidious Albion and the ease that even a contemporary Irish newspaper like the Independent would have in glorifying the memory of a young and devout Catholic who had perished as a result of Tudor brutality and the efficient spycraft of Sir Francis Walsingham. I thought it somewhat grimly inappropriate that someone put to death for treason should be glorified, but the fact that such a man could be remembered and celebrated more than four hundred years after his untimely demise is striking.

Even more striking was a look at the poem itself, written by one Chidioch Tichborne, often mistakenly called Charles Tichborne, called Elegy in its first published version in 1586 [2]:

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.

Given the beauty of this particular poem, and its grim authorship, it should come as no surprise that when the poem was first published there were various poems written in answer to this poem, some of them quite pointed and savage. One notable example, likely written by the noted Elizabethan playwright Thomas Kyd, whose “The Spanish Tragedy” was among the most popular plays of the age, the age where Shakespeare wrote his dramas, it should be noted, contained these ferocious closing lines:

Thou soughtst thy death, and found it in desert,
Thou look’dst for life, yet lewdly forc’d it fade:
Thou trodst the earth, and now on earth thou art,
As men may wish thou never hadst been made.
Thy glory, and thy glass are timeless run;
And this, O Tychborne, hath thy treason done.

The case of Chidiock Tichborne forces the reader into an unpleasant position: to what extent do we value the creations of those whose behavior is disreputable? Tichborne wrote a beautiful and appropriately melancholy poem as he approached his end, but that end was the result of his own plotting with fellow Catholics to remove their sovereign ruler from the throne. His poem is considered to be among the best of his age, showing the tendency of his generation to begin in antithesis and resolve that antithesis in paradox. He comments, no doubt about his own treasonous activities, that his story has been heard but not told—heard because it was spread around by Tudor propagandists, but not told because he did not get to tell it himself. This is a paradox, but it is a common paradox, where people find that they are known, they have a reputation, but that reputation is due to the slanders and libels of others, and that may bear only a passing resemblance to the truth. Was Tichborne an oppressed Catholic upset about government behavior and inimical to a monarch without an actual desire for bloodthirsty and treasonous overthrow? Is it just to honor those who are treasonous against wicked rulers?

This is not an idle question. The example of German anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes readily to mind here [3]. He too wrote moving poetry in prison as he faced death for treason after having been caught up in Abwehr plots against Adolph Hitler, some of those poems no doubt written to his precocious fiancé just like Tichborne wrote to his young and soon to be widowed wife. We honor Bonhoeffer because he was a traitor to a regime that was among the most evil in our world’s dark and melancholy history, and although the plots he was involved in were treasonous, we consider it no evil thing to be a traitor to an evil regime. One recognizes, of course, that governments are likely to treat all traitors alike, whether they are godly regimes, merely ordinary carnal human regimes, or historically wicked and corrupt regimes. The difference in how we view such people in retrospect is a moral judgment on the regime itself. If we judge a regime as being worthy of our respect, our passive obedience or our active support, then we will have a correspondingly negative view of those who seek to overturn such regimes, as was the case with Kyd’s savage rejoinder to the executed Tichborne. Yet if we view a regime as being entirely beneath any honor or dignity, then those who seek to betray such a regime are worthy of active praise, because we see it as righteous to resist tyranny.

In some way, as Americans this is a stance that comes naturally, as those who are patriotic citizens or residents in a revolutionary nation state such as our own cannot consistently hold to a belief system that views civil governments as automatically worthy of respect. Since we celebrate our own national heritage as successful rebels against tyrannical imperialism, the legitimacy of authority cannot be taken for granted, but it must rather be demonstrated through conduct. In theory, in such a state, every citizen is both free and responsible for making the judgment as to the legitimacy of the authorities who are over them. Instead of citizens being the passive subjects of authorities, they become the rulers and judges over those authorities, and that is a matter that makes rulers understandably nervous and uncomfortable and insecure in their offices. Yet upon what grounds are we to judge? Do we judge on mere convenience? Is there a line that authorities cross that makes them unworthy of respect and therefore rightfully resisted and overturned? And how far down does one make that judgment when it comes to authorities, for that which applies to the governing authorities over nations surely applies to subsidiary authorities as well. If there is a line that changes the appropriate response to authority from one of obedience to resistance, that line cuts through every office and authority that exists, for wherever there is power and authority, there will be someone to use it corruptly and wickedly. Let us make sure that we are not acting in rebellion against God’s ways, even if, as is the case with Tichborne, it is not always obvious who best represents those ways in a world where institutions are corrupt, and where a corrupt Roman Catholic Church stands in stark opposition to a corrupt earthly ruler, and where neither rules according to God’s laws, or with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and where even centuries after death, a person is judged by who they supported and who they opposed. We cannot escape such concern about sordid earthly politics after all.



[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to My Prime Of Youth Is But A Frost Of Cares

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