Poetry Analysis- A Litany In The Time Of Plague

Topics: Black Death, Bubonic plague Pages: 5 (1530 words) Published: September 19, 2014
Context

Nashe is most famous as a pamphleteer. an odd career that now would see him working for some Chinese restaurant or another. In Elizabethan times a pamphleteer was a bit more prominent as pamphlets were one of the most effective ways to spread ideas or news across the country. Nashe’s pamphlets were apparently pretty controversial in theme and his poetry also caused a bit of a stir, see if you can work out why!:

And make me happie, stealing by degrees. First bare hir legs, then creepe up to her knees …

“Unhappyie me,” quoth she, “and wilt not stand? Com, let me rubb and chafe it with my hand!”

Do you really need to know this? No, but has it made you smile? No? Well, on with the relevant stuff then!

So, we’ve established he was a naughty boy and in no way deserving of salvation, now let’s talk about the Black Death. It was a plague that swept around Europe for hundreds of years and is estimated to have killed 200 million people. At the time people were particularly put out by it because they had no idea what was causing it and there was seemingly no cure and people from all reaches of life were effected equally: Queen Elizabeth I was really scared of the plague and devised various quarantine measures to protect herself.

You can imagine how an unexplained fatal disease killing everyone around you would make you a little terrified for your own life, feeling like the sword of Damocles is hanging over you head and making you seriously contemplate what happens next.

Themes
The big one here is obviously mortality, but it closely associated with salvations and therefore religious faith could be considered here too.

Content
Right, it’s six stanzas and it’ll take forever to do if I go through in too much detail so you’re going to have to be satisfied with an overview.

Let’s start with the title. The word litany is now quite commonly used, but at the time was derived from and focused on a service in a church. We can take a litany to be a series of prayers or the whole service, which aims to convey a message to a congregation listening to the priest or preacher delivering it.

The first stanza gives us an overview of what’s on Nashe’s mind; he’s a bit fixated on what he sees as the certainty of his approaching death. He mentions how much fun and joy there is in the world, but sees them as being overshadowed and made to seem inconsequential by the shadow of death (‘Death proves them [our joys] all but toys’) and our mortality. He tells us that ‘none from his darts can fly’ indicating the inevitability of death; we all know we’ll die, but he seems to be implying that none can escape from death from the plague as he says ‘I am sick, I must die’ as one inevitably leads to the other.

The following four stanzas effectively say the same thing: no one is safe from the plague and nothing will protect you. He starts off by addressing the wealthy and assures them ‘Gold cannot buy your health’. He’s a little bit wrong here as wealth probably would ensure a bit of distance from the plague and the wealthy wouldn’t live in the crowded, filthy and rat infested confines of the cities, so would probably be less likely. However, this is besides the point, he’s telling them their money won’t keep them safe.

Stanza 3 next addresses the beautiful and warns them that ‘wrinkles will devour’ them and their looks and that even beautiful Queens have died young. He uses a classical allusion in Helen (the face that launched a thousand ships… because she was so pretty the Greeks went to rescue her from her Trojan captors) as well to convey the idea of beauties dying young and thus telling the young that even they are not safe from the plague.

Strength and intelligence (‘wit’) are the next two subjects. Even the most powerful will eventually ‘feed’ for the worms, or rotting in the grave, again demonstrated with a classical allusion, this time to Hector (the Trojan hero). The intelligent are unable to argue their way...
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