Please explain "Death," a poem by George Herbert.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Herbert, one of the leading metaphysical poets, wrote in the seventeenth century. These poets were educated and intended to show their wit through poetry. 

The poetry was characterized by the use of conceits which provide a theme and concept through the organization of the poem.  Often, the topic of the poem is shown in contrast to itself. For centuries these poets were ignored; in the twentieth century, they were rediscovered and are now considered leading poets of their time.

A well-educated Anglican priest, Herbert covered the gamut of man’s experiences in his writing. The poem “Death” is an example of the poetry that viewed the subject in two ways: as a hideous being and then, as a friend.

The poem is divided into two parts which portray death, each in contrast to the other. First, death is a fearsome being indicated by the medieval imagery of decay and hideous expression. Death is the grim reaper.  

At one time, “death” was an unmannerly gross skeletal image.  It groaned with its mouth agape, but nothing but moaning came out. Death was always somewhere in the future when a person had lost his senses in his older years. The human soul was left behind without mercy.

After the death of the Savior, death is viewed in a stark comparison. The second view of death portrays it as a friend or positive aspect of eternal life. The resurrection after the crucifixion offers hope to all who believe that Christ died for them. It indicates that death will be only temporary rest until Christ returns for the believers who are still alive and those who have been in “the sleep of death.”

The image of death has changed. Portrayed as more humanistic, death no longer is the skeletal image but one that has blood running through it. This alternative image may indicate the sacrifice that Jesus made when he was crucified.  

It may also refer to the life eternal concept which Christians are offered after they accept Christ as their savior. After the death of the Christian, he goes to live with Christ in heaven.  When Christ returns, the believers will be given a new body.  To the Christian, death does not end life. It is only a rest or waiting period until Christ returns.

When Christ returns [The Day of Judgment], the dead will be given a new spiritual body.

When souls shall wear their new array,

And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad

For we do now behold thee gay and glad.

Man can sleep knowing that when he dies, the grave will be a resting place with a pillow of dust or down for his head. What an interesting poem contrasting two views of death!