Four Last Things: Death

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Tuesday after the First Sunday of Advent
Day Two

“Death”, a detail from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (1500) by Hieronymus Bosch (Jheronimus van Aken, 1450-1516).

In Medieval Catholic teaching, and subsequent Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Advent was associated with the Four Last Things, namely Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. It is not that the readings in the lectionaries ever lent themselves to such topics, but the yearly remembrance of the First Coming of Christ calls to mind the Second Coming. The Second Coming is filled with aspects of apocalyptic judgement from Revelation, Mark 13, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and many other New Testament passages, informed by the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Also, fours Sundays of Advent lend themselves to a preaching series, so the Four Last Things were a useful peg on which to hang some hellfire and brimstone preaching. The themes were also used in retreats and other situations – for a literary example of this, one might look to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).

Herbert was probably aware of this tradition, as three of his poems towards the end of The Temple are titled Death, Judgement, and Heaven. However, whereas the priest in Joyce’s novel seeks to terrify the young students to faith, Herbert’s poems are more hopeful and gentle. Let’s consider Death.

Death

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
                           Nothing but bones,
      The sad effect of sadder groans:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we considered thee as at some six
                           Or ten years hence,
      After the loss of life and sense,
Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks.

We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;
                         Where we did find
      The shells of fledge souls left behind,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Saviour’s death did put some blood
                           Into thy face,
      Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
                           As at Doomsday;
      When souls shall wear their new array,
And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
                           Half that we have
      Unto an honest faithful grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

On Death

Human beings seem to have two attitudes towards death.

One is to see it as a horrible thing, a constant tragedy for humanity. Christians also think like this – Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” and in Revelation 20.14 it is personified and “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.” We in Europe and much of North America live in a western death-denying society, where old people are warehoused in poorly funded government care facilities and a premium is put on youth and looking young. The elderly are not looked upon as resources of wisdom, but as impediments to the freedom of their children and a challenge to pension plans. Herbert captures this in his description of death as “an uncouth hideous thing”.

Another approach is to see it more positively – as the conclusion of a life lived, something to be accepted and dealt with. The Order of the Good Death is a US based organization that attempts to empower individuals as they deal with death and the $20 billion funeral industry there. Their buzz-word is “death-positive” in that they seek to encourage people to talk about death and overcome death anxiety, and to look to more environmentally friendly options for the disposal of the body. Most of us do not have a clue about the options around the death of a loved one or what might happen to our own bodies, and so most of us go with what is considered “normal” or the least bother to our loved ones. They have originated “death cafés” in which people come together to talk about death, and sponsor “death salons” in which fans of death-positivity come together in conferences.

In some respects this is compatible with the view of death found in the Hebrew Bible. Death is inevitable, and after death one’s soul goes into a shadowy kind of existence in Sheol, from which no one comes, and one’s normal capacity is so diminished that one cannot even praise the Lord. A good death, in the Hebrew Bible, comes after a long life in which one has many children and grandchildren, and one is blessed with flocks and fields. We see this at the end of the Book of Job, in which the protagonist’s fortunes are restored twofold.

Jews and Christians have the hope of the resurrection of the dead, and this is reflected in the poem, where Death is transformed: “Thou art grown fair and full of grace, / Much in request, much sought for as a good.” Death is now “gay and glad”, in the knowledge that “at Dooms-day . . . souls shall wear their new array, / And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.” This is a long way from the terror used by the Jesuit priest in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and is more in line with the discipline of love described in yesterday’s poem. Through Christ Death is overcome and the fear of death is taken away.

Arnold Stein analyzes the poem in great detail in pages 37-42 of George Herbert’s Lyrics (1968). He notes that the first three stanzas “give us the old wrong view of death, the next two supply the corrected present views, and the conclusion is drawn in a single [final] stanza” (p.37). He suggests that “the reader is not likely to know that an argument is . . . being produced until . . . the “Therefore” at the beginning of the sixth and last stanza” (ibid). The argument takes us through two contrasting views of death, with the result being that we no longer need have any anxiety about death, and whether we fall asleep only to rise awake again or whether we fall asleep only to die, and yet rise again, should make no difference. The calm of eternity enters into the present.

Technical Stuff

I am terrible at scanning poetry, and figuring out where the accent or stress is. It comes up in my pronunciation of Modern Greek, too, when I put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. So I won’t even try, That said, I do note that the lines of each stanza have the following number syllables:

  1. Ten
  2. Four
  3. Eight
  4. Ten

The rhyme is ABBA, CDDC, etc. We might wonder at the rhyming of blood with good but try imagining it like a Cockney would say it, or someone from northern England, where the double -oo- is shorter than we might prounounce it today, more like a short -ou- . The way the aristocracy spoke in the early 17th century was not the way their heirs did in the 20th century, with a BBC received pronunciation or the Queen’s English. For an example of how it sounded, have a listen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YiblRSqhL04.

Arnold Stein makes another astute observation about this poem, but which may be extended to Herbert’s style in general, which he describes as “plain” and relatively passionless:

the colloquial phrasing contributes to the casualness with which a complex and difficult human attitude is made to seem natural and easy. (p. 57)

Compared to his contemporaries Herbert does seem more accessible, and yet his themes are no less complicated and high than theirs. Stuck midway between William Shakespeare and John Milton, and overlapping with John Donne, he shares their love and mastery of phrase, but eschews some of the more dramatic effects for a direct address to the reader. With Donne you have a man whose reputation and excellence precedes him, Milton is literally on an epic level incomprehensible to someone well-versed in both the Classics and Christian theology, and Shakespeare is, well, the Bard, the genius of the Globe, whom you want to applaud. George Herbert is different: one feels as though one is sitting down with a very learned but even more approachable friend.

Tomorrow I will look at the next poem after Death, entitled Dooms-day.

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. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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