George Herbert

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Explain the poem "Death" by George Herbert.

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“Death” by George Herbert can be explained as an example of the Christian belief that death is an illusion. Based on this belief, since Christ died for our sins, death has lost its sting. Far from being a terminal experience, death can now be seen as a transformational one.

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For Christians, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ converted death from an ending into a beginning. Due to Christ’s sacrifice and subsequent rising from the dead, death has been transformed from a terminal experience to a transformational one.

This understanding of death is much in evidence in “Death” by George Herbert. The speaker addresses Death, saying it was once “an uncouth hideous thing,” but now, thanks to the Savior’s death, Death has grown “fair and full of grace.”

Death is now no longer scary, no longer something to be afraid of since Christ died for our sins. On the contrary, it is the beginning of a new life in Christ: a much richer, fuller, more meaningful existence than the one we lead on earth during our mortal lives.

The speaker makes it abundantly clear that, far from fearing Death, they're actually rather looking forward to it. Because at Doomsday, when God judges the whole world, the speaker’s soul will wear its “new array,” and the bones of Death will be clad in beauty. Death is nothing more than a little sleep, which will take us on a journey from this world to the next, where our souls will stand before the Almighty, ready to be judged.

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"Death" by George Herbert is a religiously motivated poem that muses on how the perception of Death, which the poem personifies, has changed since "our Savior's death did put some blood / Into thy face."

The poem ruminates on how death was once viewed as "an uncouth hideous thing." It was the end of life and a doom which "turned bones to sticks." This image of death as a reaper is eerie and grotesque: death is portrayed with his mouth open, "but thou couldst not sing." Evidently, there is nothing to look forward to, and everything to fear, in this specter.

In the context of Christ's death, however, death changes. It becomes "fair and full of grace" and "much sought for as a good." Herbert may be referring here to the change in the understanding of death as Christianity spread or to how each man comes to view death differently as he turns to Christ; the reference can also encompass both. Christians no longer see death as a horror to be feared but instead as something "gay and glad" that they will meet "at Doomsday," when their souls will rise up and walk toward God.

Herbert concludes by saying that, in the end, we should not fear death. We should be sure that in our "honest faithful grave" we will encounter not the frightful death, but the welcoming one who will usher us to God.

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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!

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