Gosse, Edmund W. "Sir William Davenant." In The English Poets, edited by T. H. Ward. Vol. 2, 289. New York: Mac-millan, 1914.
Herbage, Alfred. Sir William Davenant, Poet Venturer. New
York: Octagon Books, 1971. Schiffer, Edward. "Sir William Davenant: The Loyal Scout Lost at Sea." English Literary History 59, no. 3 (fall 1992): 553-576.
"DEATH" George Herbert (1633) Along with the poems "Dooms-day," "Judgement," "Heaven," and "Love (3)," "Death" closes the sequence titled "The Church" within the collection The Temple by George Herbert. Taken together, the poems feature the Christian individual's movement from earthly existence into heaven. "Death" resembles John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" in its rendering of death as something to be welcomed, rather than feared. Donne probably influenced Herbert directly, not only because both served as religious leaders and shared spiritual beliefs made clear in poetry, but also because Donne had been a family friend. Both sought to explain death from a nontraditional perspective in order to promote a more positive earthly experience for those who awaited that final stage of life.
Herbert's speaker directly addresses Death through the figurative language of personification, as had Donne. Not only in his opening comment, "Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing / Nothing but bones," does he devalue Death, his direct address serves to demystify the act of dying. He builds to completion of Death's transformation when he notes that for ages people suffered from thoughts of the effects of death on those who had passed on, "Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks," as well as those left behind, who turn to "dry dust" that sheds no tears. This same dust will later reappear in the poem transformed into a reference to bodies preparing for reassembly and resurrection.
The speaker now begins his transformation of Death in earnest, noting that "since our Saviour's death" Death had become more human, with "blood" put in his face. He has even "grown fair and full of grace, / Much in request, much sought for, as a good." Herbert uses hyperbole but makes his point. Christ's death yielded redemption, allowing humans to hope for a better existence after death than their earthly one. Only by dying can they attain this "good" state. By the fifth and penultimate stanza, Death is beheld as "gay and glad," just as souls will be "at doomsday," wearing "their new array, / And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad." The dead bodies at doomsday will reassemble, bones and all, to become more complete and beautiful than at any time during their earthly existence.
Death's transformation and rebirth parallel those of the humans he had so terrified. Even this most feared state has been redeemed and resurrected by Christ's sacrifice. The result of this new manner of thinking is, the speaker concludes, that "we can go die as sleep," with people trusting "Unto an honest faithful grave; / Making our pillows either down or dust." Dust, which began the poem with a negative connotation, closes it as part of a desirable state of pleasant suspension akin to sleep, a state in which humans may await their day of resurrection.
Was this article helpful?