A summary of a classic Herbert poem
‘Church-Monuments’ is one of the greatest poems by the Welsh Metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633). The poem is a memento mori – a reminder that we will die – but one with an altogether more stoic and positive outlook on death than many such poems. What follows is a brief summary analysis of Herbert’s ‘Church-Monuments’. What does this poem mean?
While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I intomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death’s incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet, and marble put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent: that when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark, here below,
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.
In summary, Herbert begins ‘Church-Monuments’ with a stanza describing how he sits in a tomb in order to prepare for death, when his body will lie entombed in such a monument forever. Herbert’s reason for doing so is to introduce himself ‘betimes’ – i.e. earlier rather than later – to the concept of death, the state of ‘dust’ to which his body will return after death.
In the second stanza, Herbert says this is why he gladly entrusts his body to the ‘school’ of death that is the tomb: so that he may learn what death is like. The school of death that is the church monument provides a sort of ‘spelling lesson’, which enables Herbert to learn how to decipher his ‘birth / Written in dusty heraldry and lines’, i.e. the inscription on the tomb. Another lesson provided by the tomb or church-monument is the knowledge that a man’s body is composed of dust and earth, and will return to these states after he decomposes. His dust can be compared in the tomb to the dust already there; his earth can be compared to the earth surrounding the tomb. They are one and the same. The jet and marble (from which tombs are made) try to elevate man to something higher, with their ‘signs’ and dedications and inscriptions, but man is – in the last analysis – mere dust and earth.
The third stanza is more difficult to analyse, since Herbert’s language becomes more obscure. One possible interpretation is that the people who will visit the church monuments in future times will be unable to bow and kneel before the monuments as they now stand, since, they, too, are destined to fall to ‘heaps’ of dust, the stone crumbling away to the same powder as the bodies themselves. Addressing his body or ‘flesh’, Herbert enjoins it to learn its true ‘descent’ – from dust, and ultimately destined to return to dust – while Herbert himself busies himself with prayer.
As we move into the fourth stanza, Herbert asks his flesh to remember, when it grows fat and gluttonous or lustful (‘flesh’ suggesting, after all, sins of the flesh), to remember that flesh is like an hourglass that holds grains of dust: in other words, our bodies are like clocks which remind us of the passing of time as he grow older and gradually approach the grave. Indeed, even our fleshly hourglasses will crumble to dust, since all our bodies will return to the ‘quintessence of dust’, to borrow Hamlet’s phrase. This is a particularly neat analogy, since the glass from which hourglasses are made is, of course, fashioned from tiny grains of dust-like sand, the very stuff which fills the hourglasses. Herbert ends by enjoining his body to look upon the ‘ashes’ of the dead that lie within church monuments, and observe that those bodies, once as filled with lust and desire as Herbert’s now is, are now free from such appetites. Musing upon this will help Herbert’s own body to prepare for death ‘against thy fall’. Here ‘fall’ picks up on that earlier ‘descent’ (the ‘stem’ or line of descent that all bodies can trace, leading back to our ancestral ‘dust’ from which the first man was made), but principally conveys two other meanings: our decline or ‘fall’ into old age and death, and our spiritual ‘fall’, i.e. our tendency towards sin.
Herbert’s clever – indeed, ingenious – example of an extended metaphor, whereby the dust of death becomes the sand in an hourglass, is typical of Metaphysical poetry and of George Herbert’s poetry more generally. It’s part of what makes his poetry such a joy to read and analyse.
‘Church-Monuments’ is a particularly fine George Herbert poem, and its imagery is vivid and memorable. It’s a great poem to analyse in terms of memento mori poetry, but an analysis of the poem’s language also brings out some interesting wordplay and ambiguities.
Image: Tomb-monument of Lord Stourton (photo: Mike Searle), via Geograph.org.uk.