Those who can see limit pulpit praise
Yet shamelessly omit prophet ways
A Tyburn poem has six lines with the following syllables in each line: 2, 2, 2, 2, 9, 9. The first four lines rhyme and are descriptive words. The last two lines rhyme and incorporate lines 1, 2, 3, and 4 as the 5th through 8th syllables. A Tyburn poem is a thematic genre of poetry named for the infamous Tyburn gallows outside of 16thcentury London where a multitude of political prisoners as well as other condemned felons were hanged. The poetry exploits the many executions there. Here is an example:
byJudi Van Gorder
A church bell rings contrite tonight, thrice.
Tyburn gallows midnight finite price.
The history of Tyburn includes such diverse names as Cromwell and Molly Brown. Poems in many forms document this segment of history and even play a role in its traditions. Tyburn is in reference to Tyburn-gate which was an execution gallows. Tyburn is also the source of the children’s song and game called Oranges and Lemons. The words of the nursery rhyme are chanted by children as they play the game of ‘Oranges and lemons’ the end of which culminates in a child being caught between the joined arms of two others, emulating the act of chopping off their head! The lyrics to Lemons and Oranges are:
“Oranges and lemons” say the Bells of St. Clement’s
“You owe me five farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s
“When will you pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey
“When I grow rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch
“When will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney
“I do not know” say the Great Bells of Bow
“Here comes a Candle to light you to Bed
Here comes a Chopper to Chop off your Head
Chip chop chip chop – the Last Man’s Dead.”
Recitation of the “Neck Verse” actually played a part in saving some of the condemned. Any first time offender could claim “benefit of clergy”. Clergy, among the very few literates of the day, were not executed but only branded on first offense. But to prove they were clergy they had to read what became known as the Neck Verse, Psalm 51:1.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to Thy steadfast love;
according to Thy abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
At midnight before a prisoner was to be hanged a bell would be rung at St Sepulchre’s church near Newgate prison and the bellman would then recite aloud this verse:
All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray; The hour is drawing near,
That you before the Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves; in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.
Poet’s of the caliber of Shakespeare and Alexander Pope were among the many who produced verse in this genre.
Act II, Scene iii, Air XXVII—“Green Sleeves by John Gay 1685-1732
Since lays were ade, for every degree,
To curb vice in other as well as me
I wonder we han’t better company
———— Upon Tyburn tree.
But gold from law can take us out the sting;
And if rich men, like us, were to swing,
Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
———— Upon Tyburn tree.