Tuesday, April 03, 2012

`To Sever the Good Fellowship of Dust'

Yvor Winters judged “Church Monuments” the finest of George Herbert’s poems, and one of the finest in the language. Its scene is familiar. We know it from Fulke Greville, Thomas Gray, Allen Tate, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and our own lives, but seldom is the scene so enthusiastically drawn, without cloying morbidity. The speaker gazes at burial markers and contemplates mortality:

“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.”

Five sentences moving to the rhythm of rigorous thought across twenty-four lines. Later editors added the breaks between stanzas, none of which signals a full stop until the last. The poem invites a steady, mid-tempo reading, not slow but never hurried or breathless. The tone is forthright and clear-eyed, confident and without illusion. The speaker is humbled, not timid or frightened. His piety is cheerful. He tells us, after all, that dust laughs at mere stone. He’s a good student who willingly devotes himself to “this school.” The image of the hourglass in the final stanza is stunning and always takes me by surprise. If “flesh is but the glass,” it is transparent and breakable, a fragile vessel, for even time “shall / Be crumbled into dust.” Contemplate the rhymes, each a pointed little echo: “know” and “below,” “dust” and “lust,” “shall” and “fall.” “How tame these ashes are, how free from lust”: Requiescat in pace.

Herbert was born on this date in Montgomery, Wales, in 1593 and died of tuberculosis on March 1, 1633, age thirty-nine, three years after taking holy orders in the Church of England. His first biographer, Izzak Walton, wrote of his friend:

“Thus he lived and thus he died, like a Saint, unspotted of the world, full of alms-deeds, full of humility, and all the examples of a virtuous life.”

1 comment:

Shelley said...

"Fit thyself against thy fall." That should be a New Year's Eve toast.

Tuberculosis took poets for centuries, didn't it.