Literature Annotations

Nashe, Thomas
A Litany in the Time of Plague

Genre Poem
KeywordsDeath and Dying, History of Medicine, Ordinary Life, Religion

Despite its provocative title, this lyric never refers directly to a plague or epidemic, unless both the inevitability and the social indifference of death could be deemed "plagues" in themselves.

The litany of the title is a catalogue of the inability to escape death--the rich, the beautiful, the strong, the witty-- have no extraordinary claim to immunity. Like the poet whose refrain reads, "I am sick, I must die. / Lord, have mercy on us, " the reader is encouraged to "welcome destiny," as he mounts to Heaven, his heritage.

CommentaryPublished in 1600 (English Renaissance), this lyric was originally from A Pleasant Comedy, Called Summer's Last Will and Testament, which was performed for the archbishop of Canterbury in 1592. Since the 16th Century suffered its share of plagues, the poem's title may have had specific meaning to the Londoners of the time. For contemporary purposes, this little tribute to, and acceptance of, man's vulnerability to death stands as a reminder that despite all our technological advances we have not stayed death: "None from his darts can fly."
SourceThe Norton Anthology of English Literature
PublisherW. W. Norton
EditorsM. H. Abrams
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Willms, Janice L.
Date of Entry 04/03/97
Last Revised 07/02/97