Poetical Excursions, National Poetry Month 2020: Thomas Nashe

National Poetry Month is upon us.

At last–at long, long, long last–it is finally April. This March was…something, wasn’t it? In fact, there’s a joke going around online; I’ve seen a number of variations on the theme and I’ve no idea who made this joke first, but it roughly goes like this:

Wow, I just realized that I’ve been alive in seven decades!

-the 70s
-the 80s
-the 90s
-the 2000s
-the 10s
-the 20s
March

Yeah, that about sums it up. And this April is likely to be, for many of us, even worse than March was. But here’s hoping April sees some kind of turning-of-the-corner.

For me, the current crisis has yielded more time than I even usually have for digging into my internal world of music and prose and verse, and I don’t believe I have heard anything about National Poetry Month being called off just because it feels like the world is spinning off its axis. So, in addition to other things, I plan to spend time in April digging into poetry. If the current pandemic has you feeling powerless, remember: you can still enjoy poetry and explore it. There are, after all, several thousand years’ worth of the stuff to dig through.

Let’s start, though, on a somber note, for obvious reasons. This year’s celebration isn’t going to be all joy and cheer; sometimes it will be huddling around a guttering candle as the wind roars without, and sometimes it will be waiting in the dark corner as a pounding comes at the door. But it will also be occasional cheer, or, failing that, at least a shaking of the fist at the booming thunderclaps (a worthy image, that, in this year of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary).

Let’s start with Thomas Nashe.

Nashe was a contemporary of William Shakespeare’s, and reliable biographical information on him seems about as abundant. We have his dates as 1567-1601, but we know nothing at all about his death or where he was buried. Much of what is known about him is by inference. He did, though, live in London during outbreaks of the plague, which led him to write this poem. A Litany in Time of Plague is just that: a lengthy rumination on the inevitability and the finality of death, and the way it reduces everyone and everything, in the end, to the purest equality that exists.

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’s 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.

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