Week 300: A Litany in Time of Plague, by Thomas Nashe

This poem originally appeared as part of a play called ‘Summer’s Last Will and Testament’, published in 1600. In this masque, which features personifications of the four seasons, Summer is old and declining, and requests at one point ‘Sing me some doleful ditty to the Lute/That may complain my near approaching death’, and his request is duly granted. The play itself is pretty much forgotten now except among Elizabethan specialists, and so, one feels, might the poem be, as no more than a string of competent commonplaces, but for its startlingly beautiful third stanza.

A Litany in Time of Plague

Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not 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 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.

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.

Thomas Nashe

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