Selected Poem - 'Life'

In this short and sensuous poem, George Herbert uses the flourishing and fading of flowers as a metaphor for what is good in life, but also as enabling acceptance of life’s shortness. The poem is infused with the scent of the flowers. Throughout, the sense of smell is used both to describe beauty but also as a way of investigating inner truths.

'Life'

I made a posie, while the day ran by:
Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
My life within this band.
But Time did becken to the flowers, and they
By noon most cunningly did steal away,
And wither'd in my hand.

My hand was next to them, and then my heart:
I took, without more thinking, in good part
Times gentle admonition:
Who did so sweetly deaths sad taste convey,
Making my minde to smell my fatall day;
Yet sugring the suspicion.

Farewell deare flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
Fit, while ye liv'd, for smell or ornament,
And after death for cures.
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
Since if my sent be good, I care not if
It be as short as yours.

Commentary

Although Herbert draws on biblical sources (Helen Wilcox cites Psalms ciii 15: 'the days of man are but as grass..' and Isaiah xl 8: 'the grass withereth, the flower fadeth..'), this poem also reflects the writer’s personal feeling for nature. His verse often includes references to flowers, and in his work as a parson he was also well aware of their medicinal uses.

The first stanza sets out a synopsis of events, using the posy (perhaps playing with words to invoke the idea of 'poesy') as a symbol of the writer's own experience. Good things have happened and he has valued them. He has accepted that not everything lasts but clings to the fact that there is still much left to enjoy. Looking forward ('smelling out' the remainder of his life) he is realising that more is being lost, and very early ('by noon'). All of this mirrors the facts of Herbert’s own life: at first full of academic, political, commercial and social achievements, then marriage and a quieter but rewarding life as a priest, cruelly truncated by early death.

 

In the second stanza, the writer meditates on how his feelings have developed: first, taking what life offered (the hand) then coming to love it (the heart); as things develop, he recognises and accepts all things must come to an end. His mind “smells” - i.e. senses – the imminence of death, but he still finds compensations in the realisation – Time has 'sugared the suspicion'.

The final stanza bids a fond farewell to the good things in life – appealing to the senses, beautiful and also useful – all symbolised in his flowers. The last three lines abjure any sense of grievance or reluctance. The poet accepts his death unquestioningly. So long as his life has been well lived, it does not matter to him how short it is.

Overall this poem – which bears the title 'Life', but is actually about death – conveys a consoling sense of sweetness and tranquillity.

Back to Our Archives