Poor Death: George Herbert’s “Dialogue-Anthem” with Death

Through Lent With George Herbert
Good Friday

24056371.6fbbb49b.640

Christ on the Cross, made in Tirol or Salzburg (Austria), ca. 1125-1150, now in the the Fuentiduena Chapel in the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY

Herbert wrote a poem with the title Good Friday, as well as one on The Cross, but the short poem I have chosen for today, although rarely commented on by scholars, will do just as well. Herbert imagines a faithful Christian in a dialogue with a personified Death.

A Dialogue-Anthem
Christian Death.

Chr.

Alas, poor Death !  where is thy glory? Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting?

Dea.

Alas, poor mortal, void of story!
Go spell and read how I have killed thy King.

Chr.

Poor Death! and who was hurt thereby? Thy curse being laid on him makes thee accurst.

Dea.

Let losers talk, yet thou shalt die ;
These arms shall crush thee.

Chr.

                                              Spare not, do thy worst. I shall be one day better than before; Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.

The scripture standing behind this is 1 Corinthians 15, that great passage by Paul in which he asserts the centrality of the Resurrection of Jesus and of all humanity to those in Corinth who think they get by without it:

51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Christian begins with a pun; according to Inge Leimberg, in 1630 the word “poor” would have been pronounced very similarly to “power”. Thus, Christian calls into question the power of Death by calling it poor, and questioning its glory, force, and sting. Death is none too bright in this poem. It accuses the mortal of having no story, and tells it to go read that very story in which Jesus is killed. Herbert has Death offer a pun in return, although unwittingly: “Go spell” is pronounced “Gospel”, or good news. Death is reduced to calling the Christian names and making threats, which create no fear on the part of the faithful. This rather pathetic personification of death is very much in line with the mocking of death that comes with the Day of the Dead in Latin America, where Death is seen less as a threat than something with which to have some fun. Until Hollywood got hold of All Hallow’s Eve and turned it into a horror show, Halloween was something like that, too.

ingmar_bergman_death_acourseindying

Bengt Ekerot as Death in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957).

On a day when we contemplate the death of Jesus, we are reminded that despite much suffering it is not the end. Although Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” the Father is not done with him, nor is the Holy Spirit. Following scripture and the Apostles’ Creed, we assert that he has descended to the dead, and that this was truly death, that the one person who is both fully divine and fully human has experienced that very human death and all that it means. But this person, this Word made flesh, is also the utterly transcendent and infinite, and when it encounters the very mundane and finite death, it overwhelms it. Death is undone, it is accursed, it loses its power, and while it still affects us, we look past it to the resurrection.

This is why this day is “Good Friday”. Sin is borne by the scapegoat of God, Jesus of Nazareth, a pure, unblemished sacrifice for all humanity. Sin and death no longer have the power to separate us from God. The Holy Spirit is unleashed in the resurrection of Jesus, and the same power which raises Jesus from the dead is at work in us.

There is another poem in which a believer speaks to death. There is a good chance that George Herbert may have known it, as it is by his mother’s friend John Donne (1572-1631), Dean of St. Paul’s, London. That said, although it was written in 1609, it was not published until 1633, when both Donne and Herbert were dead. It is still well known. It is one of Donne’s Holy Sonnet’s and expresses similar thoughts, and I leave you with it on this Good Friday 2019.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s