Please explain this stanza from George Herbert's "Death" in close detail: "We lookt on this side of thee, shooting short; / Where we did finde / The shells of fledge souls left behinde, / Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort."

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In this stanza, George Herbert uses a seventeenth-century poetic device known as a metaphysical conceit. A conceit is any extended metaphor or simile that is extreme but genuine. They are often organizing factors in poems, especially poems from the Renaissance period. Probably the most well-known Shakespearean conceit is that of...

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In this stanza, George Herbert uses a seventeenth-century poetic device known as a metaphysical conceit. A conceit is any extended metaphor or simile that is extreme but genuine. They are often organizing factors in poems, especially poems from the Renaissance period. Probably the most well-known Shakespearean conceit is that of “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” The poem is organized around a comparison of a youth to a day in summer. In the first two lines of the poem, the speaker describes the beauty of the youth as “more lovely, and more temperate” than summer itself. This exaggerated extended metaphor is most likely heartfelt by the speaker of the poem, but it is a conceit because the metaphor is exaggerated to match the author’s intense feelings. Herbert’s poem uses a metaphysical conceit, which functions similarly. Metaphysical conceits are comparisons that also may seem to be reaching, but they operate by comparing the spiritual to the physical. Usually, metaphysical conceits are not organizing factors (like extended or controlling metaphors), but they might be used to expose another layer of revelation in the poem. In this poem by Herbert, the spiritual element being clarified through conceit is the illusion of “death.” Death is compared to a fledgling, or a baby bird that is just now developed enough to learn to fly. The metaphor actually begins in the first stanza, where the poet writes,

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,

Nothing but bones,

The sad effect of sadder groans:

They mouth was open, but thou coudst not sing.

In this first stanza, the metaphor adds the layer of a naked, baby bird to the already obvious image of a corpse. Baby birds often look like skeletons with their pink skin, blind-looking eyes, and thin, feeble bodies. This baby bird of death is depicted with its mouth wide open, not because it is preparing to sing, but because that is how baby birds position themselves to receive food from their mother. The “sadder groans” are hunger cries here; it is as if the birds are hungry for their perfect fledgling forms. This recalls Paul’s remark in his letter to the Corinthian church where he says that Christians “groan” for their remade “heavenly bodies.”

At first, the conceit of the bird may be entirely missed by the reader until the third stanza, where “shells of fledge souls left behind” are described. Remember, fledglings are young birds that are only just able to fly. Death, now a fledgling, has flown away. All that remains is a “shell” that once housed the “soul” of the fledgling. In other words, the fledgling is the soul that has taken flight into the heavens, another “side” that the speaker cannot see because the eyes are “shooting short.” The attention is fixed on the remains in the nest, rather than on the lively bird soaring to great heights in the heavenly unknown.

The metaphysical conceit is present to reinforce the Christian theme that the dead have only temporarily left their bodies. All will inhabit their “shells” again because Jesus will return to make “all things new.” Once readers are reminded about the hope they have in Jesus in stanza four, they may look at the first two stanzas differently; instead of seeing a corpse decaying into dust, or an empty nest, they may fix their eyes on the “heavenly unknown,” the “fledgling souls” soaring in the skies of the Lord’s promised return.

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