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Death by Herbert
Posted by: Poundeliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 14, 2006 05:04AM

Hi everyone

I'm new here but have been into poetry for some time.

Lately I've been reading Herbert but the poem 'Death' puzzles me a bit.


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

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

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short,
Where we did find
The shells of fledge-souls left behinde
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Saviourís death did put some blood
Into thy face,
Thou art 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 doomsday,
When souls shall wear their new aray,
And all thy bones with beauty 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.

How do you interpret the line "We looked at this side of thee, shooting short, ..."

I'm Danish, btw. so from time to time certain idioms and expressions elude me.
I hope you can point me in the right direction. Also, any thoughts on the poem is more than welcome.



Re: Death by Herbert
Posted by: Poundeliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 14, 2006 06:02AM

Another thing: about the line "making our pillows either down or dust", the inplied subject being 'the faithful grave' or ...? Must be the grave, right?

"Therefore we can go die as sleep" - does this simply suggest that "we" can perceive death as nothing but a (harmless) sleep?

Thanks for your time.

Re: Death by Herbert
Posted by: IanB (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 14, 2006 08:03AM

Well it's clearly not by the late English humourist A.P.Herbert !

I interpret 'We looked at this side of thee' as meaning we focused just on the remaining years of life expectancy, rather than looking forward also to an after-life. That interpretation is reinforced by 'shooting short', which I assume was jargon then for shooting at short-range targets. A metaphor for short-term planning.

By modern secular standards, this poem seems rather dry and cerebral, but it may have had considerable emotional impact at a time when religion was a powerful force in people's lives.

The six stanzas of the poem obviously fall into two halves. The first three describe how death used to be regarded as nothing but a bad and absolute end. The last three observe that Jesus' death and resurrection have resulted in a new view of death. The poet says that people now regard it as some kind of desirable, exciting way-station, and dying is thought of as not much different from going to sleep.

Itís not clear to me whether 'half that we have', the second line of the last stanza, refers to worldly wealth that is now saved and spent on funeral rites, or means that people now believe that they have at least an even chance of an after-life. If the latter, perhaps it suggests some cynicism in Herbert's description of the faithful in the last three stanzas. Again, that tone may have been more apparent to contemporary readers.

What impelled Herbert to choose the format of each stanza: an ABBA rhyme scheme combined with a short second line? Perhaps he just fell into it when a pleasing first stanza wrote itself, and so he continued with it. The result, anyway, is that the second line of each stanza is a point of emphasis, and a fulcrum on which the form turns. Lines 3 and 4 build in length until the length of the original first line is almost reached. The form of each stanza thus reflects the theme of the poem, that people have been liberated from the constricting fear of death.

Perhaps Iím reading too much into such aspects, but thatís the best I can do.


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/14/2006 08:04AM by IanB.

Re: Death by Herbert
Posted by: Hugh Clary (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 14, 2006 12:56PM

Pretty much same old, same old by now, but Georgie lived way back in the 17th century, so fresh and new at that time. Christianity promises us a heaven, so we don't die any more (no heaven in Judaism, right). Death has no dominion, death itself has died, etc.

Fledgling is still around in the English language, but we don't see fledge much any more - the stage at which a young bird develops feathers and leaves the nest. So, the shells of fledge are those that did not make it?

The pillows are down if we have faith in Christ, thereby resting comfortably forever, or dust if we are unbelievers. Well, at least he didn't sentence us infidels to a death of flames in hell!

Lots of stuff on Herbert at Toronto and Luminarium, if desired.

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Re: Death by Herbert
Posted by: Poundeliot (192.168.128.---)
Date: December 14, 2006 02:14PM

Thanks a lot, you two. Your views and points are of great relevance to my gradual understanding of the poem. I hadn't thought about many of the things you pointed out. I think Herbert makes a very elegant distinction between the fates of infidels and believers - dust and down, how neat!

So thanks a lot. It's a great poem, I find.


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/14/2006 02:15PM by Poundeliot.

Re: Death by Herbert
Posted by: denise04 (192.168.128.---)
Date: January 09, 2007 07:45PM

Have you seen this site dedicated to Funeral Poems? It has a lot of funeral poetry on there!

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 01/09/2007 07:46PM by denise04.

Re: Death by Herbert
Posted by: briskar (85.216.209.---)
Date: January 02, 2009 10:24AM

I think that poem is beautiful.

By the way have you seen this blog about funeral readings? There is a lot of great content, excellent funeral readings and poems.

Re: Death by Herbert
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Date: January 02, 2009 11:15AM

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