(1665) Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, adopts a thoughtful, contemplative tone to begin his "Elegy over a Tomb." Readers can easily envision the speaker, who loved the figure in the tomb, asking gently probing questions that rise in strength to demand a reason for his loss. He becomes an everyman, a universal figure, in his attempt to understand death. His six six-line stanzas adopt a rhyme scheme of abbacc with varied meter that promotes a driving momentum. In all except the final stanza, the six lines equate to one lengthy question.
With his grief clearly reflected in his words, the speaker wonders why he must "see, alas! Eternal night / Sitting upon those fairest eyes." Herbert offers a nice contrast between the speaker, who can see all, and the possessor of the "fairest eyes," who can only view death, referred to through traditional figurative language as "Eternal night." The beams from the beloved's eyes "once did rise / So radiant and bright" their "light and heat" converted into "Knowledge and love." Again, Herbert contrasts the deceased's previous condition, in which beams of light and life shot from her eyes, to her present condition, in which she sees only the darkness of death. The speaker then questions the deceased herself, asking whether she "did delight no more to stay / Upon this low and earthly stage," selecting instead "an endless heritage," where she has stored "all the beauty that those ashes ow'd." Herbert makes the point that beauty is ethereal and all things human will one day be reduced to elements, such as those represented by ashes.
The third stanza suggests that the sun might now enjoy her light, extending the earlier CoNCEIT. Herbert adds additional nature references as the speaker surmises that ocean waves have claimed the curls from her hair, and that she has restored "unto the sky and air, / The red, and white, and blue." She may also have passed her "sweetest breath" along to the flowers. Continuing to seek the cause of what appears to have been an early death, the speaker wonders whether heaven demanded her light, or the "sky and air have else conspired" along with the flowers to steal her gifts. He continues to surmise that she may have so "enriched" the natural elements that she "changed the course they held before, / And broke their proper laws." He seems to want to draw some comfort from the obvious answer to whether her beauty gave "this second birth to Heaven and Earth?" Herbert bases his ideas on the natural philosophy presented in his philosophical treatise in Latin De Veritate (1625). In that work he theorized on the necessity of harmony between man's thoughts and his environment. He also believed in pantheism, the idea that multiple deities existed in nature, a belief projected through his poem.
The speaker concludes by begging for some word from the dead, with the first, third, and fifth lines of the final stanza all beginning with the phrase "Tell us." He wants her to explain "where are those beauties now become, / And what they now intend." Herbert ends his poem with two lines that make clear the occasional brilliance in his work remarked upon by critics: "Tell us, alas, that cannot tell our grief, / Or hope relief." Herbert's sincere emotion unifies the poem, as does his extended use of nature imagery.
Was this article helpful?