English 1102 006
25 January 2018
“A Litany in Time of Plague” by Thomas Nashe
In “A Litany in Time of Plague,” Thomas Nashe uses a litany to develop the theme that death is inevitable. The word “litany” is defined as a prayer spoken by a leader, followed by a fixed response from the congregation. Nashe uses the structure of six stanzas, each with a rhyme scheme of A-A-B-B-C-C-D to have a smooth flowing movement when read. Each line in this poem is very short and direct which could be an indication of how Nashe sees life. Each of the stanzas focuses on an aspect of life affected by the plague that cannot be saved such as lustful joy, wealth, beauty, strength, and wit. Each stanza also ends with the repetition of the refrain “I am sick, I must die / Lord have mercy on us!” determining that every stanza must end the same, just as every life ends the same. Although Nashe only refers to the plague once in his poem he uses implications of the plague throughout to develop an overall theme that death is inevitable. He also uses repetition, imagery, personification, metaphors, and allusions in “A Litany in Time of Plague” throughout each stanza, to help reinforce this theme.
In this poem, despite the fact that Nashe only refers to the plague in the title and the second stanza, he still makes implied references to it. The title “A Litany in Time of Plague,” can be referred to as a prayer during the plague, because during the time this poem was written; the Renaissance, religion was very important therefore people usually prayed to get through the hardships. In stanza two, the speaker says, “The plague full swift goes by” (12) which could be a reference of the plague that took over Europe and killed many people. In stanza three, the speaker says, “Beauty is but a flower/ Which wrinkles will devour” which refers to time; even the most beautiful things become worse as time takes a toll. In the same stanza, the speaker also says, “Queens have died young and fair” (18) portraying to us that young people are dying too soon because of the plague. These references of the plague all tie into the theme that death is inevitable, there is no escaping it. No prayer can help, to keep you from dying, everything comes to an end sooner or later.
Nashe makes frequent use of literary devices to help reinforce the theme that death is inevitable. For instance, the speaker starts the poem with, “ADIEU, farewell earth’s bliss” (1) setting off a serious tone by saying “ADIEU, farewell” meaning goodbye in the first line. He then personifies death, “Death proves them all but toys” (4) to show that “death” will come for us all there is no way to avoid it. In line five he displays an allusion of the inevitability of death hitting its target, “None from his darts can fly” emphasizing the fact that no one will live forever. Moving onto the second stanza the speaker then says, “Rich men, trust not in wealth/ Gold cannot buy you health” (8-9), indicating that it doesn’t matter if you are rich, no amount of money or wealth can keep you from death because you cannot buy health. Furthermore, in the third stanza, Nashe describes imagery by alternating light and dark beauty as a flower. The speaker says, “Beauty is but a flower/ Which wrinkles will devour” (15-16): he starts off with describing the beauty of the flower and destroys it in the next line. In the fourth stanza, “strength” is personified “Strength stoops unto the grave” (22), to indicate it’s surrender to death because even during the plague, strength cannot save you. Also in the fourth stanza, earth and bells are also personified, “Earth still holds ope her gate/ “Come, come!” the bells do cry” (25-26). This can be understood as the earth welcoming the people dying into the gates of heaven and the bells being a reference to the church bells that ring when someone dies in early Christian churches. In the fifth stanza, he also displays personification, “Hell’s executioner Hath no ears for you to hear” (31-32) meaning that no matter what you say death will not listen.
The tone is very serious and negative throughout the poem until the last stanza. In the last stanza, the tone changes into a more positive one when the speaker says, “Heaven is our heritage” (38), in this line heaven is mentioned, as the possibility of salvation; meaning being saved or protected from harm, ending the poem positively with a sense of hope. He then presents a metaphor, “Earth but a player’s stage” (39) this is where earth and a stage are being compared. People on earth are playing their part or their main role, but heaven is their actual heritage. The last line before the refrain that is presented at the end of every stanza is, “Mount we unto the sky” (40) explaining that death is not the end. This shows a changed understanding of life. All these literary devices that Nashe has represented to us allows us to help reinforce the theme of the poem.
The main idea of Nashe’s poem through his choice of literary devices and theme is that nothing will save you from death and you cannot escape it, it is inevitable. No matter how wealthy, beautiful, strong, or witty you are, death cannot be spared. The ultimate destination is heaven, so we have to die to reach the ultimate height. In the end, everyone will meet the same fate, which is death. Nashe uses very simple language, same as the idea of death, simple and easy to understand. Nashe started us off with being in fear of death with a negative tone but ended us off with a positive feeling of the acceptance of death.