While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I intomb 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.
Church monuments are usually set up to commemorate the grief of the person who puts them up and to display the social status of the person being commemorated. They are not as common as they once were, but go into any old English church and it seems they are often crammed full of the darn things, so that the architecture or the place is overwhelmed.
They existed in Herbert’s time, too, and he takes them as an opportunity to reflect on mortality. In the first stanza, Herbert imagines intombing his flesh within a monument (or perhaps nearby). Remember that he had in another poem compared human beings to delayed dust, and he would be conscious of God’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.19:
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Herbert’s flesh is intombed, and becomes well acquainted with the dust of death. He thinks of it as a fellowship of death in the third stanza, where all are equally dead and turning into the ground from which they came. Church monuments may state one’s high birth and achievements, but the reality of death makes a mockery of such proclamations in marble and jet. The dispassionate dust, the reality of death, counsels one to temper on’e cravings and to “fit thyself against the fall.”
Church monuments and gravestones sometimes have statements like this:
Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me
The poem is essentially saying the same thing in more elaborate speech. Herbert was aware of the fragility of his own life, and undoubtedly thought about his own death.
I am now old enough to realise that I could die at a relatively early age. My father died at the age of sixty-four, and I always thought that I would easily pass that. However, as I age the possibility of not making it to sixty-five or seventy becomes more apparent. In all likelihood I will make it past that, as my mother did, but one never knows. I have spent enough time with dead bodies to know the starkness of death. Death reminds me, schools me, in the question: what am I doing with my life? And, so I pray, that my life will be devoted to God and my neighbour, and not merely about achievement, acquisition, and the satisfaction of cravings and lust.