An Advent Retreat with George Herbert:
Day Three: Wednesday after the First Sunday of Advent
As I look at the detail above what strikes me, apart from the whimsy in the depiction of the demons and scary beasties, is how so many of the tortures of hell were, in fact, present in the 16th century of the artist. War and torture were an ever-present reality of the immediate pre-modern era, and civilians were rarely spared. We see the imminent evisceration of a man in the right, with a little creature waiting to feed on his flesh. The young couple are also being irritated by something like a crab and a goose – something I am sure has a deeper meaning of which I am unaware. I do not know what the demon with the Santa hat is doing, but were this a modern painting I would think he is taking a picture with his cell phone to put on Twitter or to sext to all the couple’s intimates. All in all, the tortures of hell were only a variation on what was already happening on earth.
George Herbert doesn’t do hell, and he is no Hieronymous Bosch. His Dooms-day is anything but hellish.
Make no delay.
Summon all the dust to rise,
Till it stir, and rub the eyes;
While this member jogs the other,
Each one whispring, Live you brother?
Make this the day.
Dust, alas, no music feels,
But thy trumpet: then it kneels,
As peculiar notes and strains
Cure Tarantula’s raging pains.
O make no stay!
Let the graves make their confession,
Lest at length they plead possession:
Flesh’s stubbornness may have
Read that lesson to the grave.
Thy flock doth stray.
Some to winds their body lend,
And in them may drown a friend:
Some in noisome vapours grow
To a plague and public woe.
Help our decay.
Man is out of order hurled,
Parcelled out to all the world.
Lord, thy broken consort raise,
And the music shall be praise.
The rhyme scheme is simple, as usual: AABBCC, etc. The syllables per line are:
Of course, one could argue that it is really five lines of seven, but Herbert is doing something in the first two lines that suggest otherwise. First, there is the rhyme. Second, the first line, identical in all five stanzas, has an insistent quality as it is repeated, with the beats accented as a molossus ‘ ‘ ‘ or perhaps as ‘ ‘ ˘, depending on how one says it. The second line, different in each stanza, sets a brief theme for the next four lines.
As in Death, there is nothing to fear in Dooms-day. The poem is addressed to God, and perhaps Jesus Christ as the returning Son of Man. Ann Pasternak Slater notes that C. A. Patrides suggests in his The English Poems of George Herbert (London: 1974) that this is a parody of an anonymous aubade (1 : a song or poem greeting the dawn 2a : a morning love song b : a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn 3 : morning music (Merriam-Webster)) from 1600. If so, Herbert has transposed it, as Pasternak Slater says, to a more transcendent subject (p.486).
Doomsday here is the Day of Resurrection. Thus the charming picture of the resurrected coming out of their graves and saying, Live you brother? Herbert’s vision of the resurrection is influenced by the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:
Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
In the second stanza Herbert borrows from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15.52, where the apostle writes, “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Herbert plays with the idea that the dead dust of human remains are deaf to anything except that last trumpet, and this overcomes the pain that comes from the spider known as the tarantula wolf spider.
The third stanza suggests that human stubbornness may have taught the personified grave a lesson, namely that possession is nine tenths of that law. English common law recognizes something called “adverse possession” but better known as “squatter’s rights” in which someone who does not have title to a piece of real estate but nevertheless lives on it, may over a period of time gain title to it. This old principle has been severely circumscribed over the past century, but it still exists in some common law jurisdictions. Herbert is suggesting that the grave may try to assert such rights over the dead, having held them for so long.
The fourth stanza notes that decaying bodies (as dust presumably) may be buffeted by the wind, and fall into the eyes of their friend (a more modern concern given the frequency with which cremated ashes are scattered in tempestuous weather). A more common concern in Herbert’s times would have been the putrefaction of dead bodies and the perception that they might cause disease; there were no “garden” cemeteries on the edge of town, but rather the church kept on poring dead bodies into graveyards around city churches, even if they were already full. In Paris this led to the command in the late 18th century and early 19th century that all the dead buried within the walls of the city be exhumed and reinterred in the excavated caves underneath. In the end the bones of some six million souls were removed, and you can go on tour to see them (as my son and I did in 2014). In the poem Herbert is imploring God to end these problematic situations.
In the final stanza God is implored to “help our decay.” In the first case this refers to death, in which humanity is like a “broken consort” i.e. a shattered music group. It is also described as the dispersal of the human body as it returns to dust and is scattered to the winds, “out of order hurled, / Parcelled out to all the world.” In the resurrection of the dead we are restored to order, and we can now sing proper praise. In the second case, this might also refer to our current condition – we need a spiritual resurrection in this life, so that as a body of humanity we might rightly praise our God.
The Apostles’ Creed is said on a regular basis by Christians every Sunday. It is the baptismal creed in the Western Churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed Communions. Many people say it every day, twice, as part of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. In it is said,
I believe in Jesus Christ . . . He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
I think this raises two questions. First, do I really believe this? And second, does one have to believe this to appreciate the poem?
I answer the first question with a “yes”, but immediately qualify it. I do believe that God is not done with us when we die, but I do not have any literal idea of what that looks like, other than that it is characterized by God’s love. As a student of philosophy I studied the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who suggested that each different field of discourse are like a “language game”, with their own rules and assumptions. To apply scientific literalism to theological propositions is to confuse two different language games. The minute we start speculating on the ontological status of the resurrection we will tie ourselves into knots, leading to errors and bad behaviour. The Resurrection of the Dead is more than a poetic idea, but it is not the same as talking about Newtonian physics or Quantum mechanics. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the firstborn of all who have died, but his appearance in the world after his death was real and spiritual, not ghostly but not quite the same as my current bodily existence. So I will use the language I find in scripture to talk of what happens to the dead, and what I trust will happen at the Last Trumpet, but I will not assert that it looks anything like “The Good Place” or Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
And I would answer the second one that one can certainly appreciate Herbert’s poetic mastery without necessarily believing what he (and I and billions of other Christians) believe. That said, perhaps it is not an accident that agnostic poets of the Twentieth century like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden became observant Christians in the middle of their lives. Just as Christian musicians often find that their deepest piety is expressed in music, so poets may find that they are expressing something divine in their own words, and cannot help but be transformed by it. At the very least, I would hope that someone is challenged by these words, and if not themselves brought to faith, at least be impressed by the faith and skill of those wrote them.