Selected Poem - 'Death'

Death is something of a taboo subject today. How many people will not read this poem because of its title! But to George Herbert the crucifixion of Christ transformed death and made it something to be welcomed. In his view, we can regard death as just the same as going to sleep.

'Death'

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder grones:
Thy mouth was open but thou couldst not sing.

For we consider’d thee as at some six
Or ten years hence,
After the loss of life and sense,,
Flesh being turn’d to dust, and bones to sticks.

We lookt on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did find
The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.
But since our Saviours death did put some blood
Into thy face;
Thou are grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for, as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at dooms-day:
When souls shall wear their new aray,
And all thy bones with beautie shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithfull grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Commentary

Herbert starts the poem by addressing death as a person – 'Death, thou wast once an uncouth, hideous thing'. This personification of death is found elsewhere in seventeenth century poetry. John Donne had done the same in his poem 'Death, be not proud' some years earlier. Herbert pictures death as a skeleton ('nothing but bones'), an image that would have been familiar to his readers. In the second verse he pictures the skeleton 'some six Or ten years hence' when the body has rotted away and all that is left is a few stick-like bones.

But in verse 3 a new metaphor changes the picture. Today we call a young bird that has grown wing feathers large enough for it to fly a ‘fledgling’. Herbert compares the old rotting bones to the egg-shells left behind in the nest by a bird that has hatched and fledged and that has now flown away.

'But since our Saviours death' - these words at the start of verse 4 are the pivot of whole poem. The first half of the poem is about the grimness of death; the second half offers a new vision. 'Our Saviours death' has reclaimed death, and 'put some blood into (its) face'. George Herbert would have known Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones in the Old Testament (Ezekiel Ch.37). In that vision, the dry bones grew flesh and muscle and skin, and came alive again. George Herbert sees the skeleton of death transformed in a similar way. Death is now 'fair and full of grace', a phrase with several meanings. 'Fair' means good-looking; 'grace' refers to the redeeming love of God, but also it means charm and elegance, as in the word ‘graceful’.

 

So death is now good-looking, and it is also 'much sought for', something 'good'. At a time when there were no painkillers, Herbert would have been aware of how much pain some people suffered as they came towards the end of their lives and how some longed for death as a merciful release from suffering. 'At dooms-day' those who have died 'shall wear their new aray' – ‘array’ or ‘clothing’. The old bones will be clothed in beauty. We can hear an echo of words from the book of Isaiah (Ch.61 v.3) – the Lord 'will give them beauty for ashes, ... the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness'.

This would also seem to be a reference to the resurrection body, and Herbert may well have had in mind the chapter about the resurrection body in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Ch.15) in the New Testament, and his phrase 'When this mortal (body) shall have put on (been clothed with) immortality' (v.54). So 'we can go die' in just the same way as each night we go to sleep. We can now entrust our bodies, 'half that we have', to 'an honest faithfull grave', a grave that has been compared to a birds' nest and is now compared to a bed.

In Herbert’s time most people who were comfortably off used pillows stuffed with down, the soft under-plumage of birds. It makes a very comfortable pillow or mattress to sleep on, and is still widely used today. 'Since our Saviours death' is the turning point of the poem. It has changed everything. The ugliness of death has been made beautiful. We can be as relaxed in dying as we are in going to sleep. We can rest our heads, whether lying asleep in bed on pillows of down or lying asleep in the grave on pillows of dust.

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