Litany In Time Of Plague A Adieu Farewell Earths Bliss

Thomas Nashe (1592) Thomas Nashe probably wrote Summer's Last Will and Testament, the play from which "A Litany in Time of Plague" comes, in early autumn 1592. The occasion of the play's performance was the entertainment of Nashe's patron, John Whit-gift, archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the employees and guests in Whitgift's country home at Croydon. An outbreak of plague had prevented the archbishop and his company from returning to London at the end of summer. Nashe's allegorical show incorporates this contemporary threat of disease into timeless festive themes such as the celebration of a harvest, the ebb and flow of the seasons, and the natural processes of growth and decay.

The sixth of the play's seven songs, "Litany" responds to the ailing Summer's request for "some dolefull ditty" to "complaine my neere approaching death" (ll. 157273). Its tone, reminiscent of the memento mori (reminder of death) idea, is mournful and solemn, even ceremonial; each stanza addresses the transitory, "uncertaine" nature of life and the immediacy and inevitability of Death, which is personified in a traditional manner as wielding darts. But while the subject matter remains constant throughout, examples are employed to illustrate the hollowness of "lifes lustfull joyes" (l. 1576). The middle four stanzas address the different "joyes" ultimately emptied out by Death, and they order these from least to seemingly most permanent: wealth, beauty, strength, and wit (or intelligence). All get


exposed as hopelessly insubstantial; in the case of beauty, for instance, we are provided the classical example of Helen of Troy, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the world but now obscured by the "dust" of the grave.

Each stanza concludes with a refrain drawn directly out of the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer: "I am sick, I must dye: / Lord, have mercy on us" is a response to the litany of saints and was a phrase often posted on the doors of plague-infected homes. Such direct, topical reference to the disease ravaging London, a descendent of the Black Death, localizes the poem's broad concluding statement about the necessity of preparing spiritually for the afterlife: "Haste therefore eche degree, / To welcome destiny: / Heaven is our heritage" (ll. 1609-11). Universal concerns are accommodated to the particular individuals for whom the song was first performed—namely, those being sheltered from plague in Whitgift's country home. In this way, the somber religious overtones of the "Litany" encourage a sense of spiritual community—a community of sufferers and worshippers, regardless of "degree," or station in life— that differs from the secular versions of community in the play, which result from participation in holiday pastimes and life-affirming celebrations.

Over the course of the last century, "A Litany in Time of Plague" has fostered considerable critical debate focusing on the meaning of the line "Bright-nesse falls from the ayre" (l. 1590). While some critics took the line to be purposely ambiguous, others contended that "ayre" was meant to be "hayre," and that the line was thus a straightforward commentary on the passing nature of beauty. It has also been suggested that this line refers to the lightning and comets that were thought to foreshadow the plague deaths of late summer. More recent commentary accommodates Nashe's demonstrated anti-Puritan feeling by reading the poem's concern with representing the natural, universal human condition of suffering as a refutation of the Puritan idea that plague resulted from unnatural social abuses.

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