In case you were curious about George Herbert's differing stances on death. :) An essay I did for my poetry class.


Opinions on Death

George Herbert has great theology, but one thing that he doesn't quite seem to settle upon is what to make of death. There are two poems of his- "A Dialogue-Anthem" and "Death"- that express similar stances, but they have too many differences to have the same opinion. "A Dialogue-Anthem" is noticeably more mocking of Death's character while "Death" seems to be a sort of redemption poem for the same character. The only thing they really seem to have in common is the sense that Death has lost its power and isn't a thing to be feared anymore.

In "A Dialogue-Anthem", one of the few conversational poems, two characters aptly named Christian and Death are talking about how Death has lost its power since Jesus died and rose again. Death is not amused:

"Let losers talk, yet thou shalt die ;

These arms shall crush thee." (7-8)

This seems to cast Death in a villainous role, which is what people are used to seeing. It also shows Death as something powerful and vengeful (again, just like a villain). This Death has a bad attitude and he reminds the Christian that he will die eventually, which is true. Everybody dies. The Christian replies:

"Spare not, do thy worst.

I shall be one day better than before ;

Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more." (9-11)

That's where the poem ends, but it's safe to say that the Christian has "won" against Death, even though they weren't exactly fighting in the first place. By showing bravery about his own death and acknowledging that once he does die, then he'll be made into a new person, the Christian has changed from mocking Death's lack of power to being a wholly noble character. In turn, this shows Death in a negative light. It should be noted that even though it's a negative poem about death, there is no mention of fearing it at all, which implies that it isn't something to be feared. The Christian's general attitude towards it also demonstrates this because of how he isn't the least bit flustered by Death.

The poem "Death" seems to start out the same way by describing Death in a way that agrees with the villain of "A Dialogue-Anthem":

"Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,

Nothing but bones,

The sad effect of sadder grones :

Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing." (1-4)

The key words here are "wast once". Those two words imply that Death has since changed from this foul state of existence. As before, the thing that seemed to change Death is Jesus' death and resurrection.

"But since our Saviour's death did put some blood

Into thy face ;

Thou art grown fair and full of grace," (13-16)

Unlike the previous poem, this doesn't make Death a villain. It actually sanctifies it in a way, because now people can actually look forward to the day they die:

"For we do now behold thee gay and glad,

As at dooms-day ;

When souls shall wear their new array,

And all thy bones with beautie shall be clad." (21-24)

It's ironic how in the previous poem, Death is the one opposing the Christian; yet in this one, it's treated very kindly and seems to be a friend on some level. It's even with them when the world ends. The reader could even say that the character described here isn't really an antagonist anymore, but a sort of Angel of Death. It's honest and fair and thoroughly good. At the end of the poem, the writer seems to say we can trust this being more now that it's been made good:

"Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust

Half that we have

Unto an honest faithfull grave ;" (25-27)

Similarly to the first poem, Death is characterized as powerless, but it's more subtle in this poem. The writer describes the process of dying as falling asleep. It's much less sinister and more comfortable. But even with this similarity, there seems to be a difference. Dying seems to be very peaceful in this poem, but in the former, it seems quite violent.

Something lastly to consider is if George Herbert meant "A Dialogue-Anthem" to be more light-hearted about Death and the actual poem "Death" to be his real views on it. Considering the tone of the first poem, it would seem like that's what he was trying to do. The reader could even go so far as to interpret "A Dialogue-Anthem" as something as ridiculous as this:

CHRISTIAN: Nanananana, you lost all your power!

DEATH: Shut up, noob. I killed Jesus.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah, no you didn't. You got no power.

DEATH: I'm gonna kill you.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah, well, that'll just send me to Heaven. Suck it.

The poem "Death", on the other hand, was written in such a manner that there was no question that it was anything but serious. But if he wasn't writing with a tongue-in-cheek manner during "A Dialogue-Anthem", which also seems likely since he tends to be more honest and less appealing to humor with his poetry, then it seems like he didn't really know what to make of Death except that it was not to be feared and it was, in the end, powerless.


My teacher is under the impression that this deserves an B+. I would have given myself a C. And why yes, I did collapse into a giggle fit after I wrote: "Shut up, noob. I killed Jesus."

Actually, I really do recommend reading "A Dialogue-Anthem" and "Death". They're both quite good.

Donuts today. Murphy's Lawyer put me in the mood for them. :D