One of the reasons there are so few poems of the law and of justice, in spite of the essential role both play in a peaceful society, is that the exposure of the common people to either is rarely warm and fuzzy, conducive to poetry writing.

Usually, it is as a result of litigation, which leaves no-one but the lawyers singing songs of joy.

But as poetry springs from strong emotion too, so, then, can it spring from despair.

Chidiock Tichbourne (1558-1586) was caught up in Elizabeth I's anti-catholicism, during which the possession of "popish relics" was banned. But where Tichbourne really crossed the line was in his secret support for Mary Queen of Scots and his participation in a plot (later known as the Babington Plot) to assassinate Elizabeth I (pictured)- a crime not well received and with the most egregious of punishments, being drawn and quartered.

When the plot was uncovered and the plotters identified, Tichbourne was suffering from a broken leg so, unlike his co-conspirators, he was unable to escape London. From his cell in the Tower of London, on the eve of his execution, he wrote this to his wife (note: 'tares' is the older English word for weeds). The poem has no formal title but has been known by the names of 'Tichborne's Elegy' and 'My Prime of Youth is but a Frost of Cares':

Elizabeth IMy 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.

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.

REFERENCES:

  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Poetic Justice: Law Poems
  • Painting of Elizabth I done in about 1560; oil on panel. Artist unknown. Original in the National Portrait Gallery, London.