A Poem, An Execution

By Robert Pinsky on 4.02.09

As I say in the introduction to the “Stories” section of Essential Pleasures, the idea that young Tichborne wrote this poem “with his own hand in the tower before his execution” may be a fiction. If so, it is a very effective fiction, well suited to the relentless, kettle-drum quality of these formal patterns, rhymes, repetitions—all emphasizing the theme that this life is just beginning and at the same time ending.

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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.

Imagine a writing assignment: write a poem that uses only one-syllable words. Here, the poet fulfills that assignment (if we elide “fall’n” in the second line, second stanza) not by disguising it so much as emphasizing it: “I looked for life and saw it was a shade.” The verbs looked and saw, near-synonyms with the fine and significant distinction between them, call attention to the depths in apparent simplicity; the nouns life and shade, near-opposites with the crucial similarity between them, call attention to the frailty of their difference. The simple, homely nature of the poem’s figurative language—dish, sun, field, thread, earth—gives the blank fact of death an awesome clarity.

topics: Essential Pleasures

1 Comment

Mark Dalton said on 4.05.09 at 5:59pm:

I particularly like the first stanza ryhme of Pain and Gain and the glorious utilization of the word vain in the fourth line of the first stanza. By introducing the word vain in the line “And all my good is but vain hope of gain;” the full stop reinforces the idea of pain as well as sounding painful. It is a master touch.