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Thomas Nashe

A Litany in Time of Plague

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1600

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Summary and Study Guide


“A Litany in Time of Plague” was written by the English playwright, pamphleteer, satirist, and poet Thomas Nashe. The poem first appeared within Nashe’s comedic play Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1600) but it has since been recognized as its own distinct work independent of its origin. The play was composed during a deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague between the years 1592-1593, and “A Litany in Time of Plague” consequently acknowledges the inevitability and imminence of death during such a dangerous time. Titled a “litany,” or a list of prayers, the poem presents a series of petitions to God, meditations upon mortality and eternity, and spiritual instructions for readers to follow.

A somber and simplistic reflection upon death inspired by the recent plague, “A Litany in Time of Plague” stands out amid Nashe’s body of work. Nashe was a professional writer who wrote commercially for a wide variety of genres, starting with political and religious pamphlet debates and moving on to stage plays and even a proto-novel with The Unfortunate Traveller. Most of Nashe’s writing is characterized by an intent to entertain and typically features his trademark sharp wit and satire, inventive language and newly-coined phrases, scatological and irreverent humor, explicit sexuality, and colorful colloquialisms. With its humorless focus on mortality and the temporality of human existence, “A Litany in Time of Plague” is a highly unusual entry in Nashe’s oeuvre and unusual even within its original comedic source text. The poem shares more similarities with contemporary Puritan sermons than Nashe’s pornographic “The Choice of Valentines,” his most infamous poetic endeavor.

As a professional writer, Nashe was well-known in his day and even infamous among his peers for some of his more controversial writings. He collaborated with famous Elizabethan playwrights Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson on the plays Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594) and Isle of Dogs (1597) respectively and wrote the preface to close friend and fellow writer Robert Greene’s prose romance Menaphon (1589). Thomas Dekker, the author of the famous Elizabethan comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600), openly praised Nashe’s wit and their peer Michael Drayton regarded Nashe as a true poet, despite his typical use of prose. Many literary critics have even speculated about the extent of Nashe’s influence on such classic Shakespeare plays as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King Lear.

Poet Biography

Thomas Nashe was born the son of Parson William Nashe in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England in 1567. Thomas was one of seven children, but only he and his older brother Israel lived to adulthood. Little is known about Thomas Nashe’s childhood and young adulthood until he entered St. John’s College in Cambridge sometime in 1581. While Nashe did complete his bachelor’s degree and seems to have begun his Master of Arts at the same school, he ultimately abandoned his studies for reasons unknown and left for London to begin his career as a professional writer in 1588 at 21 years of age.

Shortly after his arrival in London, Nashe became good friends with the prolific pamphleteer and writer Robert Greene. Nashe’s first significant writing job immediately landed him in the midst of controversy. In 1588, a series of pamphlets by the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate targeting the episcopal Church of England began publication. Marprelate’s anti-episcopal tracts generated intense public interest and increasing criticism of the church, so the beleaguered bishops finally hired professionals to write a response. Writers John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe were each commissioned to battle Marprelate in print, and from 1589-1590, Nashe crafted his combative, satirical, and witty authorial persona through the Marprelate pamphlet debate. His most well-known pamphlet from that time, An Almond for a Parrot (1590), debuted many of the writing quirks that would become characteristic of Nashe’s later works, like his irreverent humor, his lively wit, his use of insulting epithets for opponents, and his creative wordplay. However, while Nashe was ultimately on the winning side of the Marprelate debate and emerged as a distinct writing talent because of the experience, his participation in the controversy marked him as a suspicious, controversial, and mercenary figure in the eyes of the public.

Throughout the 1590s, Nashe spent his writing endeavors soliciting patronage, working as a copy editor, collaborating with some of the developing theater’s most successful playwrights, and writing pamphlets. His most infamous writing of the decade, however, came from his years-long feud with Gabriel Harvey, another successful writer at the time. Nashe first criticized Harvey in his first distinctly original work Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil (1592), since Harvey had recently attacked the late Robert Greene in a pamphlet of his own. A satirical prose pamphlet about a poet who attempts to sell his soul to the Devil for greater wealth, Pierce Penniless immersed Nashe in controversy once more, for its divisive interpretation of demonology and its attack on Harvey.

Nashe continued his attack on Harvey in his pamphlet Strange News (1592), and the two writers engaged in vicious public debate until nearly the turn of the century. While the two never argued on one consistent point, Harvey consistently characterized Nashe as a talented but mercenary writer who squandered his potential by writing sensational literature for money. For his part, Nashe characterized Harvey as a bitter, inept, and failed writer who lacked conviction and attacked other writers for fame and fortune. Their debate only ended in 1599 when the Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift began censoring published satire. The Archbishop ordered that all of Harvey and Nashe’s pamphlets be destroyed and prohibited them from being published again.

Aside from his debate with Harvey, Nashe wrote and published several works in the 1590s. During one of the worst outbreaks of the bubonic plague in London, Nashe composed the comedy play Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592) and the tract Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (1593). Although Summer’s Last Will and Testament was first publically performed in 1600 after the threat of the plague had passed, it was privately performed for Archbishop Whitgift in 1592. The play balances Nashe’s characteristic wit and humor with more serious reflections on impermanence and mortality, symbolized by the “death” or end of the summer season. The play is heavily influenced by the ongoing plague epidemic, most notably in the contained poems “Fair Summer Droops,” “Autumn Hath All the Summer’s Fruitful Treasure,” and “A Litany in Time of Plague.”

Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem more explicitly responds to the plague. Like many contemporary sermons and tracts, Nashe’s pamphlet portrays the disease as the wrath of God on London for its wickedness. Although Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem was a fairly traditional and morally didactic work from the usually irreverent Nashe, the pamphlet was still heavily criticized for its insertion of comedy in a pamphlet about Christ prophesying against Jerusalem. Some of Nashe’s critics, including Gabriel Harvey, condemned the tract as blasphemous, and several London officials rankled at its depiction of their corruption.

Nashe next published possibly the most important work of his career, the proto-novel The Unfortunate Traveller (1594). Considered by some literary critics to be the first picaresque novel, The Unfortunate Traveller follows its roguish hero Jack Wilton as he travels through 16th-century Europe and witnesses a number of significant historical events. Although the book is heavily satirical, it is also Nashe’s most realistic work, with brutal and gory descriptions of a Europe experiencing massive political overhauls. Many literary critics consider The Unfortunate Traveller to be Nashe’s magnum opus and the most “modern thing in spirit and kind that Nashe ever wrote” (Reid Barbour, “Thomas Nashe,” Poetry Foundation).

After The Unfortunate Traveller, Nashe did not publically publish anything until 1597. He seems to have spent most of this time soliciting money from and writing for private patrons. The only significant work to come from this period was the overtly pornographic poem “The Choice of Valentines,” which survived in manuscript form. Nashe once more began publishing with the lost play Isle of Dogs in 1597, which he coauthored with Ben Jonson. For reasons unknown, the satirical play was immediately censored, all copies were destroyed, and Ben Jonson was arrested. Nashe narrowly escaped imprisonment and fled to Yarmouth, where he published his final work Nashe’s Lenten Stuff (1599) in self-imposed exile. The inoffensive pamphlet offers a quaint portrait of a red herring fishery in Yarmouth, and its triviality marks a notable change from Nashe’s earlier polemical and witty prose.

The events of Nashe’s death remain a mystery. There is no record of where, how, or even exactly when he died. The only indication of Nashe’s death is the poet and clergyman Charles Fitzgeffrey’s epitaph for him published in 1601. A once infamous and intensely public figure, Nashe died in relative obscurity. However, his legacy lived on in subsequent generations of professional writers, which included such figures as William Shakespeare. To this day, literary critics recognize Nashe as a significant turning point in the literature of the English Renaissance and as a pioneer of writing techniques well ahead of his time.

Poem Text

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!

Rich men, trust not in 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 open her gate.

“Come, come!” the bells do cry.

I am sick, I must die.

           Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness

Tastest death’s bitterness;

Hell’s executioner

Hath no ears for to hear

What vain art can reply.

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!

Nashe, Thomas. “A Litany in Time of Plague.” 1600. Poets.org.


“A Litany in Time of Plague” opens with the speaker bidding the earth and its “bliss” (Line 1) farewell, as he realizes that everything about life is “uncertain” (Line 2), except for its end. In this first stanza, Nashe introduces Death, who he personifies throughout the poem and acknowledges that there is no escaping Death with his “darts” (Line 5) and that all of life’s “joys” (Line 3) are futile in the face of that end. Nashe concludes the stanza with the poem’s constant refrain “I am sick, I must die. / Lord, have mercy on us!” (Lines 6-7). This refrain marks the first of the poem’s frequent petitions.

Stanzas 2-5 each introduce a different type of power that pales in comparison to death. In the second stanza, Nashe presents wealth and financial power, and the speaker urges the rich to “trust not in wealth” (Line 8), because no amount of money can save those who have succumbed to the plague. “Physic,” or medicine itself, “must fade” (Line 10) as “all things” (Line 11) are meant to eventually end and die, especially as the plague takes hold of England.

In the third stanza, the speaker shifts to the idea of beauty. Beauty is temporary, the speaker argues, and soon “wrinkles will devour” (Line 16) even the most beautiful person. The speaker also notes that even the most “fair” and powerful of queens have “died young” (Line 18). To demonstrate the point, the speaker references Helen of Troy, considered to be the most beautiful woman in history, and reasons that even Helen’s beauty has been consumed by “dust” (Line 19) and the passing of time.

The fourth stanza introduces the idea of physical power and “strength” (Line 22) and references the classical figure Hector, the prince of Troy, to represent that strength. However, like Helen, Hector lies in a grave, powerless to stop the worms that “feed” (Line 23) on his flesh. He could not “fight with fate” (Line 24) and prevent his death. Nashe then evokes the image of the earth or ground as a city whose gates are always “open” (Line 25), beckoning souls to meet their death.

The next stanza transitions to wit and intelligence, a power that Nashe himself relied on throughout his career. In this poem, the speaker characterizes wit as “wanton” (Line 29) and art as “vain” (Line 33) in the face of Death, “Hell’s executioner” (Line 31). No amount of wit or cleverness can help someone dissuade Death, who has “no ears for to hear” (Line 32), from taking them.

In the final stanza, the speaker changes from the list of powers made null by death and instead urges the audience to learn from the examples set forth in the poem. People should “haste” (Line 36) towards and “welcome” (Line 37) death, since it is a necessary step towards eternity in Heaven. With this sudden pious strain, the speaker dismisses the earth as a mere “player’s stage” (Line 39) when compared to eternity. The final stanza and poem once again ends with the repetition of the refrain “I am sick, I must die. / Lord, have mercy on us!” (Lines 41-42).