Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Good Felowship of Dust: Reflections on Herbert's "Church-monuments"

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb 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.

One can not encounter death, or even its monuments, without facing the certain knowledge that it will one day overtake us and turn our flesh to dust. Most often we chose to be forgetful of our coming death, thereby cheating ourselves of any profit from our brush with death's reminders. George Herbert, in his poem "Church-monuments," does not shrink from such an encounter with death's monuments, in this case tombstones, but rather uses this encounter to admonish his body to prepare for its inevitable dissolution into dust.

Herbert's tone is a devout one, but one which seems to posit a radical distinction between body and soul. In the poem's first three lines he evokes two themes that are central to the poem: a feeling of pious devotion and self-admonishment as well as a dualism between soul and flesh. Here, as throughout the poem, body and soul pursue different objects: while the soul goes to her devotion, the flesh is entombed to make acquaintance with death. Noteworthy, too, is the feminine pronoun used for the soul in the first line, while the body later receives exclusively masculine pronouns. In the third line we first find mention of dust, here likely referring specifically to a tombstone or even the heap of earth covering a grave or, perhaps, as below, referring more generally to the dust of mortality. The soul is here the animus of the flesh, leaving the body among the graves as it ascends.

The poet wishes his body to become acquainted with this dust "betimes," before it is driven there by "death's incessant motion," as evoked in the final three lines of the first stanza. This "betimes" is one of the few notes of hope in the poem: while the poet may not be able to avoid death, he can take away from his encounter with death a renewed determination to avoid its causes. It seems that we neither approach death casually nor approach it by purely natural causes; rather, we are blasted there by an eternal engine fueled by our crimes. Herbert here echoes St. Paul's notion that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23): our sins propel our incessant drive towards mortality. Herbert here is very inclusive: it is our shared crimes that drive all of us to our common death. As personal a meditation as the poem undoubtedly is, it reflects an individual response to a universal reality.

While the poem follows an a-b-c rhyme scheme, with each line made up of ten beats, an exception is made by using eleven beats in the first and fourth lines of the first stanza. Moreover, the extra beat in the first line gives us an extra sense of movement as we follow the soul repairing to her devotion. The fourth line's extra beat again evokes movement as we follow "death's incessant motion." The poem's rhythm is slow and steady, as befits its grave subject-matter. The twenty-four lines mirror the twenty-four hours of the day, time marching on.

The second stanza finds the poet trusting his body to the cemetery as to a school of mortality. In line six, as in the second line, the "I" of the poem again leads the body, making it appear likely that the "I" is the soul, the force of motion within the body. The simple lesson of the school is spelling: the body is to learn to spell its elements and find its birth written in the "dusty heraldry and lines" of the grave-marker. The tombstone or grave the body is asked to study reveals its components: dust and earth. One sees, by "Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth," that one's body's elements will dissolve into that of which it was composed. In the twelfth line "these," namely the dust and earth, "laugh at jet and marble put for signs," which "sever the good fellowship of dust, / And spoil the meeting." That is, the "jet" (here, likely black lignite) and marble of tombstones are an artificial barrier between the dust of the body and the dust of the earth. For, ultimately, body, sign, and earth are all so much dust. The fellowship of dust will come about no matter how many monuments are constructed.

The monuments, being dust themselves, will also dissolve and be lost. No one will be able to point them out after they have bowed, kneeled, and falled down flat to "kiss those heaps," those earth-covered graves. Another reading of lines fourteen to sixteen is that the "they" of the fifteenth and sixteenth lines refers to people rather than tombstones. In this reading it is the visitors to the cemetery who bow down in veneration before the grave-heaps in which they vainly put their trust.

The end of the third and beginning of the fourth stanzas find the poet's "I" -- again, likely the soul -- reminding the body, as in the eighth line, to learn its "stem" and "true descent" from the dust while the soul continues to pray. It is curious that soul and body again seem to be engaged in separate tasks: the soul prays, the body learns its mortal lessons. This curiosity might be resolved by suggesting that the soul's very act of devotion is its meditative instructions to the body that it learn both its source and its final end.

An admonishment to restraint ends the third and begins the fourth and final stanzas. Still addressing the body, the poet -- or, perhaps, the poet's soul -- urges it, when it grows fat and wanton in its cravings, to remember "That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust / That measures all our time; which also shall / Be crumbled into dust." We see here life as an hourglass: the body, as the hourglass itself, will soon too dissolve into dust. More problematic is the dust of the twentieth line which measures our time. What does it represent? One possibility is time, but such an interpretation renders the twenty-first line redundant. Is this measuring dust the soul? But the soul is immaterial, it is the one element in the poem which is above dissolution. It could be that this dust is simply the sand of the hourglass, a finite measure of our earthly life. The admonishment of lines seventeen to twenty-one appears to be based on the assumption that what is ultimately to be turned into dust does not deserve pampering. Or, at least, when it does grow fat and wanton in its cravings -- and the poet states this almost as an inevitability -- it should humble itself by remembering its origin and ultimate destination.

The poem's final three lines find the poet reminding the body that "here below," in the grave, the ashes are tame and free of lust. The poet's argument to his body here is less clear. It is likely a reminder that such feelings as lust are passions of the body which dissolve with its passing and, having reviewed the evidence for mortality, the body should restrain itself from such passions. The opposite conclusion, however, could be reached: that the body should make use of the life it has to enjoy its lust. The final line, "That thou mayest fit thyself against they fall," could be read in at least two ways. The most obvious would be that the poet, again addressing the body, urges it to guard itself against the fall of sin. Another possibility is that the fall refers to death, for which the body must prepare.

There does appear to be a dualism between soul and body: the soul is the animating force inside the brute body. The souls ascends in devotion while the body studies the simple lesson of its origin and destination. It is the "I," the soul (not that in line seventeen it is the "I," like the soul in the first line, that is praying) which alone appears to have reason and speech, while the body can only look and learn. Yet we can resolve this dualism and reintegrate soul and body to some extent by recalling that, throughout the poem, the soul is feminine and the body masculine. Joined together they make up the human person, which is neither disincarnate soul nor unanimated body. The soul's devotion in the opening line, as well as its prayer in line seventeen, could consist of the body's morbid lesson.

Though written in the first person and reflecting the poet's own graveyard meditation, the poem is universal enough in content and emotion to serve as a prayer for anyone encountering mortality.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very nicely done!

David.R said...


aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for this post on Herbert, Father. I shall be mentioning and linking to it very soon!

aaronandbrighid said...

Reading it over again, I like your suggestion about the joining of the feminine soul with the masculine body, but it occurred to me that if the masculine pronouns in the 2nd stanza refer to the body, then the use of the neuter 'it' in the first line of that stanza is rather puzzling. When I first read the poem, before your commentary, I took 'his' to refer to Christ. I don't know if such an interpretation holds up, but otherwise I'm puzzled by the switch in pronouns!

aaronandbrighid said...

I just came across a clear echo of this poem in Vaughan's 'Retirement' (ll. 45-48):

A faithful school where thou mayst see
In heraldry
Of stones and speechless earth
Thy true descent;