Blog Post

Poetry for a Time of Plague

Graphic by Michelle Jia; photo by Tati Tata; public domain image of Nashe from Richard Lichfield.

Shakespeare may well have written King Lear in quarantine during one of early modern London’s periodic bouts with plague, but the most powerful depiction of illness written in Elizabethan London was a lyric poem by the urban pamphleteer and stylistic experimentalist Thomas Nashe. Nashe’s poem voices the perspective of a suffering body in the grip of illness. Watching Covid-19’s numbers rise in America and the world today, it’s hard not to think that we would rather avert our eyes to the stark view that Nashe provides. He presents neither a magical-seeming vaccine nor a tale of heroic caregivers saving lives. Instead, his verse describes how it feels to live inside an infected body, speaking the voice of illness, echoing with proximity to death. The results are haunting and beautiful, though their sing-song rhythm also appears deeply conventional:

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!

Nashe’s rhyming stanzas interrogate our daily experience of fear and uncertainty – the moments when we listen to our own coughs or consider our slight chills, and wonder what’s happening inside our bodies. His literary tactics do not include the close physical descriptions of plague sores or fever dreams we find in Camus or Defoe or even Boccaccio. Instead, Nashe fits the symptoms of sickness into verses comprised of three six-syllable mostly iambic couplets, with the last rhymed line of each stanza admitting to sickness and ensuing death in anapestic dimeter. A final unrhymed line seeks heavenly mercy. We do not want to hear that voice, we are doing all we can to avoid letting that infectious point of view into our homes -- but it’s the most urgent voice we can imagine right now. “I am sick,” says the sick body. “I must die,” admits the sickened soul.

The half-dozen stanzas of this poem, usually anthologized as "A Litany in a Time of Plague," were written as part of Nashe's only single-authored play, Summer's Last Will and Testament. This work was performed privately around the summer of 1592, when plague closed London's public theaters. The play itself combines complex allegorical figurations with topical references, but the poem focuses directly on the sick and dying in an infectious time. Over his career, Nashe had a habit of taking up only to break and re-imagine many standard literary forms. In this poem he strains the conventions of Elizabethan verse in order to reveal human suffering.

The poem’s third stanza juxtaposes invisible airborne death with the face of the most beautiful woman in history. It provides the poem’s signature moment and its most overt departure from conventional imagery:

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!

What does it mean for “brightness” to “fall,” in Nashe’s most famous line? The imprecise image exposes the constriction of sense that defines mortal illness. When brightness falls, details get submerged. The sick person, losing brightness, loses perspective and perception. Inside a sick body, it’s hard to see or make sense of the world around us. The usual features of urban life, including the inns and taverns about which Nashe writes elsewhere with verve and invention, fade. With falling brightness the visible world vanishes from sick senses.

The rest of the stanza returns to conventional lament, although the pathos of beautiful young dead Queens might carry some forbidden charge in the 1590s, with Queen Elizabeth pushing into her sixties. The blinding of Helen’s godlike eye, which like brightness falling presents an image of failed sight, rolls into the stanza’s quadruple-rhymed close, eye / I / I / die. The closing anapests narrow the reader’s perspective, until we too can see nothing beyond the coming loss, and a need for mercy.

The poem’s half-dozen stanzas display Nashe’s typical practice of inhabiting while also exploding the literary forms of his age. His picaresque narrative, The Unfortunate Traveler, breaks the mode of aristocratic romance by featuring a “courtesan” as heroine and eventual wife of his wayward page-hero. His quasi-ethnography of poor writers in London, Pierce Pennilesse, features the Devil in a walk-on part. His Chaucerian narrative poem, "The Choice of Valentines," descends into the pornographic free-for-all of its alternate title, "Nashe's Dildo." Few Elizabethan writers turned to so many different genres and forms, and none was as radically experimental in the ways that he transformed the conventions he employed.

Tom Nashe’s restless literary innovation, visible even in the largely conventional Litany, captures the broken sensations of plague times. When the virus of “brightness” falls from so many human bodies, infection overshadows the metaphors of the stage. Nashe’s final stanza returns to familiar dramatic ideas as the poet strains toward heaven. Taking one last dig at the public stage that mostly scorned him, the poet rejects fables of drama for the hard clarity of mortal suffering:

Earth [is] but a player’s stage,

Mount we unto the sky.

I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us!

In turning away from Earth and from the “world’s a stage” metaphor, Nashe faces upward away from humanity. The action required of the dying voice, to “mount…unto the sky,” participates in the familiar motion of heavenly ascent while also turning the poem’s back on the antics of earth and stage.

Nashe will never displace Shakespeare at the center of English literary history, though I hope he may yet edge his way onto the near sidelines to join his collaborators Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. But the “Litany in the Time of Plague” speaks more directly to our Covid present than flashier tragedies of young love, like Romeo and Juliet, or addled authority, such as King Lear. Nashe, more than Shakespeare, puts his pen exactly on the painful place of sickness. His poem presents the thing itself, what the sick person feels in the moment of mortal illness, the terror and realization that we all fear, and that we hope desperately not to face.

Over one hundred thirty thousand Americans, as of July 6, have seen brightness fall. Nashe himself, broke and with all his published works banned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, died, probably of plague, sometime around 1600. 

Our national community, leaderless and frightened, has not yet found a shared song to mourn our building losses. We might do worse than recall the cadences of Nashe’s Litany. Lord, have mercy on us!

Steve Mentz's picture
Professor of English
I teach English literature at St John's in New York City, with a focus on the blue humanities , Shakespeare, ecocriticism, and histories of changing media technologies. My current book publications include a short book, "Ocean," in Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series (2020); an open-source book, "Break Up the Anthropocene," in U Minnesota Press's Forerunners Series (2019); *Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719* (U Minnesota P, 2015); and a collection of essays, *Oceanic New York*, that respond to New York's urban waterways, Hurricane Sandy, and the place of art in times of crisis. I'm working now on the blue humanities and rising seas in the Anthropocene.