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Voices in the Cave of Being

Among the Monuments: Inner Spaces


For several weeks during the winter of 1989-90 I slept badly. They were not dark nights of the soul. It was the body that was uncomfortable.

Some of the cold of the fearsome North American winter that year had reached down to the Mexican village where my wife and I were staying for my third sabbatical. The house was unheated, the bed less than perfectly comfortable—not a nest, but a darkling plain on which I shifted around in search of ease.

One night, during a waking spell, I tried recalling a poem that I particularly admired, George Herbert’s seventeenth-century “Church Monuments.”


I was not seeking to allay dreads or overcome self-disgust. I had done that twenty years before, alone in the high thin air of Mexico City, in the interminable small hours of a hotel room with light seeping in greyly from the airshaft, when I said over to myself like mantras several of the poems of J.V. Cunningham—“Coffee” (“When I awoke with cold/ And looked for you, my dear,” etc); and others.

Those were the voicings of someone who had been there and come back. It was comforting to be able to say, “Dark thoughts are my companions. I have dined/ With lewdness and with crudeness…” and the rest of the six-line poem, culminating in “In the cat-house of the disheveled dead,” and to know that you could acknowledge such things without being destroyed by them.

But I was not seeking moral comfort from Herbert’s poem, or at least not in a simple way. Nor was I after the kind of at-home-ness that comes for me with the superb confidence, the steady bravura progression, of a poem like “Sailing to Byzantium,” which has been imprinted on my memory for years.

“Church Monuments” did not offer the comfort that comes each time you firmly close off one stanza and embark on the next one—“An aged man is but a paltry thing,” “O sages standing in God’s holy fire,” “Once out of nature I shall never take”—and feel the differentness, the firm identity, of each new stanza, almost as if you were progressing through a linked series of mini-poems.

When I had, after a fashion, memorized “Church Monuments” a couple of years previously, I had been struck by how, despite its four-square look on the page, its four six-line stanzas didn’t in fact work in that way.

It was a poem that you couldn’t rest in. Once you had started on it (“Now that my soul repairs to her devotions”), you simply had to keep going, without the conventional pauses at the ends of stanzas. And it kept threatening to slip away, so that you had, as it were, to create or maintain it as you went along.


There are other major poems like that, of course.

In some, such as Hardy’s “The Haunter” (“He does not think that I haunt here nightly”) or Villon’s “Freres humains qui après nous vivez,” the rhymes are so interlinked and the lines so similar in structure that you have trouble recalling which line goes in which stanza, and at times a line can simply drop out of mind.

In others, such as Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin,” there are simply so many highly individuated stanzas that it is hard to recall which one goes where, and whole stanzas can disconcertingly vanish.

And part of the satisfaction of being able to say over to yourself unfalteringly an elaborate poem is that you have been able to remember it.

You’ve negotiated a series of difficulties—the way in which, say, the rhymes come in a ballade like Villon’s, without any forcing of sense and syntax, or how, in complex stanzas like those of Donne’s “The Sun Rising” (“Busy old fool, unruly sun”) or Yeats’ “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” not only do rhymes keep coming but the shortening and expanding of the lines also goes on without any forcing.


It’s always nice to able to hold in your memory an elaborate sequence of moves.

It’s nice to be able to solve one of those puzzles in which different-sized rectangles of wood in a frame have to be shifted in an intricate sequence so that the largest of them can travel from one corner to the opposite one.

It reassures you that the mind can reach ahead and “shape” things.


But it wasn’t simply that, either, that I was after on those winter nights when I was trying to make my way through “Church Monuments.”

I did want a kind of comfort. But in a way, the comfort came precisely in the experiencing of the difficulty and the fact that you couldn’t entirely surmount that difficulty. I wanted a certain kind of poetic openness, a reminder or re-reminder of the possibility of utterance that doesn’t become tamed, that resists being collapsed into its “ideas” or the “personality” of the author, or its “symbols,” or other abstractions whereby the professional academic, the “expert” in such matters, is able to take over and fit the poem into a larger structure; demonstrating its essential similarity to various other poems.

I also didn’t want the kind of detached reading in which you fasten on this detail or that and, as if focusing on a face or a hand in a portrait, “examine” it, discourse about it to yourself (in part as if discoursing to others), so that your own discourse dominates at that point. If I had come to value this particular poem, it was because it had already offered a resistance to that kind of thing.


Here is the text of the poem.

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb 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.


It was not a poem that I myself had noticed at Oxford in 1949 when I wrote one of my weekly tutorial papers on Herbert, a poet who excited me as Donne and Marvell did.

I recently came upon the large-print Victorian edition of Herbert’s poems that I bought for a shilling or two in that first undergraduate year, along with volumes of Crashaw and Waller. There are a lot of my pencillings in that volume: wiggly lines alongside stanzas, connecting arrows, underlinings, cryptic penciled comments. I had evidently been glimpsing a lot, or feeling that I glimpsed it.

But “my” Herbert, the Herbert who moved me most, was the Herbert of “Virtue” (“Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright”) and lines like, “I read and sigh and wish I were a tree/ For sure some bird would trust/ His household to me, and I would be just.” “Church Monuments” remained unmarked.

My eye must simply have slid across it—several times, probably—identifying it as a straightforward Christian-clerical poem, rather than the poem of a sensitive person, almost a “modern” person, who happened to be earning his living as a cleric at a time when there was very little else for such persons to do.


What brought me back to “Church Monuments” was the high praise accorded it by Yvor Winters in Forms of Discovery, which I reviewed in 1968. In the earlier The Function of Criticism, his naming of it as one of the greatest poems in the language had sounded like a characteristic example of his eccentricity, along with his preference for T. Sturge Moore over Yeats. Now, I was more impressed.

But even though, when read in the context of all the other poems praised in Forms, “Church Monuments” did indeed seem rich and sonorous, something to put beside Fulke Greville’s “Down in the depth of mine iniquity” or Edward Taylor’s “View all ye eyes above,” it still didn’t truly come alive for me until, in the lovely Nova Scotia summer of 1987, two years before we headed down to Mexico, I tried committing it to memory.

That summer—and it was lovely, particularly out alone by one of the lakes near our city, without a house in sight—I was also trying to memorize Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin” and Rimbaud’s “Larme” (the latter also highly praised by Winters), as well as more accessible poems like Hardy’s“The Haunter” and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Eros Turannos.” It was an exciting experience.

I had memorized poems before—“Sailing to Byzantium” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” “The Sun Rising,” “Virtue,” and Marvell’s “The Garden” among them—but I had never before had the sensation, as I did with Valéry’s great poem, and as I was to have a year later with some of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, that in a sense I was composing this or that poem as I lay in bed with a medley of finished and partly finished stanzas, unattached lines, and odd phrases, and tried to summon up from memory, and from my sense of how a stanza was going, or a run of stanzas, what ought to be there.

It was all rather like those fragmentary, scribbled-over earlier drafts of “Sailing to Byzantium” that the editorial activities of Yeats scholars have made available to us.


Formerly, I had more or less taken over poems that I particularly liked as if they were dramatic monologues, so that I could in a sense “be” W.H. Auden sitting in September of 1939 in one of those low joints on 52nd Street, or Yeats in his new-made home in the ancient tower, its living room warmed by a peat fire, and the Irish west all around, with its “cold Clare rock, and Galway, rock, and thorn,” and colourful denizens (“And where was it/He rode a horse without a bit?”), and the mind summoning up other figures—Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Sir Philip Sidney.

I was “being” Cunningham, too, in the small-hours greyness of my Mexico City hotel room when I said over to myself—aloud? or in the echo chamber of my head?—

When I awoke with cold
And looked for you, my dear
And the dusk inward rolled,
Not light nor dark, but drear,

Unabsolute, unshaped,
That no glass could oppose,
I fled, not to escape
Myself, but to transpose,

and on to the end of that moving five-stanza poem.

But now, in the summer of 1987, I was conscious of the strangeness of several major poems, and the extraordinary difficulty of progressing through a series of stanzas or linked lines in which at each point something slightly new was happening or being added, but all the time with perfect formal appropriateness.


I had “Church Monuments” by heart in the sense that I knew all the words and didn’t have to get up and refresh my memory from the printed page. But I found the poem continually getting away from me with respect to something fundamental, namely the stanzaic structuring.

I knew—I could picture its shape on the page—that the poem consisted of four stanzas, and that the basic rhyme scheme was abcabc. And when I distanced myself from time to time and skimmed the visual field, I could provide the rhyme words of each stanza.

But each time that I began at the beginning and said the poem through to the end, I found that the structure was dissolving on me, so that quite soon I could not tell which stanza I was in or, at times, what word was rhyming with which.

And on each occasion the poem felt much larger, longer, and fuller, more charged with things going on, than its spectral pictured shape suggested.


I was always a very poor chess player. But the experience that I am talking about was a bit like that of a game of chess, in which the initial clarity of the board, and the simplicity of the rules, soon gives way to a complex mental dynamics of space and time, in which the mind struggles to hold in a series of configurations what has already happened and what may or will happen, so that the “present,” the space where you “are” at any moment, is a dance of interactions between “past” and “future.”

There was nothing anxiety-making about all this. It wasn’t like what happens—for me at least—when you tell yourself that this time you’re going to read through the first section of Mallarmé’s “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” or the opening Time-Present, Time-Past lines of Eliot’s Burnt Norton, with start-to-finish understanding, only to find yourself dissolving into a welter of confusion like that of your teary ten-year-old schoolboy self trying to work a set of algebra problems for his homework.

On the contrary, the experience was a heartening one.

It’s always heartening when poetic form—I am using the term broadly—does what it is supposed to do, so that the merely visual field fades and you become involved in a progression of changes and additions, of continuous enrichments, from which you can’t step back, as if before a picture, and have the poem all there at once in your head.

It is what happens, for me at least, in the progression from stanza to stanza in poems like Hardy’s “The Haunter,” with its repeated rhyme words (“know,” “go,” “do”, “to”), or Baudelaire’s twenty-one-stanza “Les Petites Vieilles” (“The Little Old Women”), with its brilliant shiftings of poetic registers, or—well, the reader can think of his or her own favourite examples.

Works of that kind don’t go stale; don’t become “known” and, like a squeezed orange, reduced to their “ideas,” or autobiographical content, or anything else, including their form. Genuine vitality, the kind that exists in and through its ordering, is always heartening.


I am now going to do something risky and offer a start-to-finish account of “Church Monuments,” based largely on what seems to me to go on as I say the poem over to myself.

I have had the printed page at hand while writing it, and have referred to the text from time to time. But I have tried as far as possible to avoid a quasi-pictorial skimming in which your mind’s eye, while you’re thinking about an early part of the poem, leaps ahead to other places in the poem and back again, so that you’re reading that early part in the light of what comes later, with related assumptions about what “must” be there in the early lines.

The risk of a point-by-point account is, of course, that it makes static what is dynamic, fluid, “organic.”

A good deal of criticism has been a reaction against the would-be totalizing accounts that began with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren and that felt, for all their intricacy and ingenuity, Brooks’ especially, so untrue to the actual experience of reading rather than analyzing a poem.

Too many privacies were being invaded, too many cherished wildernesses and sun-warmed fields of high grass and wild flowers confidently trampled through, surveyed, marked out for further development.

But since the effects that I am concerned with are sequential ones, I don’t know how to proceed except sequentially.


The text of the “Church Monuments” that I have used is the one in Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fields’ major canon-challenging anthology Quest for Reality (1969), a text identical, apart from minor modernizations of spelling, with that in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F.R. Hutchinson (1941).

It was Winters who first brought the poem into such visibility as it now possesses and who wrote in Forms of Discovery (1967),

It is always rash to give extremely high praise, and most critics avoid doing so; yet in the matter of importance of theme and mastery of execution, this poem and Jonson’s To Heaven appear to me the most impressive short poems of the English Renaissance… [W]henever I turn for an example in English of what the short poem should be at its best, these are the first two poems that come to mind.

His own analysis of certain aspects of the poem’s syntax in relation to lines and stanzas is characteristically sensitive, especially when he talks about how we pause naturally even at the ends of enjambed lines. But his approach for the most part is fairly narrowly formal, and there is a lot in the poem that he doesn’t talk about.

My own account is not significantly indebted to his.


Here’s the poem again:

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb 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.


The first three lines are a straightforward unit—almost.

While something is going on, we’re told, something else is going on, so that something further may go on, a single line being devoted to each of those somethings:

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust

And what is being talked about is going on “here.” But already things are not moving in quite the expected direction.

If the ostensible key-setting first line leads us to expect a continuing decorum corresponding to the decorum of the soul (a soul energized for us by “repairs to” and the feminizing “her”), the second line swerves away from the high-level activity that all souls—all devout ones at least—engage in, to what “I” do, a more individuated “I”, an “I” that is curiously separate from both soul and body.

And this “I” is not the conventionally autobiographical “I,” as in Yeats’ “I pace upon the battlements and stare,” in “The Tower,”or Auden’s “I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-Second Street” in “September 1, 1939.”

It is, rather, the speaking “I,” the speaking self that is characterizing what is going on with that striking phrase “entomb my flesh” (the stone church cold like a tomb?), and the drama of whose characterizings we are drawn further into with the again unexpected and individuating phrase “this heap of dust,” a phrase whose reference, given the plural title and the singular “this heap of dust,” is not instantly clear and in fact never becomes so.

This isn’t a sort of “Elegy Written in a Country Church,” with the curfew bell ringing, the cows sauntering home across the meadow, and the rest of it. You can’t simply say, well, by the words “this heap of dust” (irregular, powdery, unstable) he simply means—what? the packed earth of the church floor? the bony remains of bodies buried there?—just as you cannot simply say what a lot of lines in Mallarmé or the Mallarméan Edgar Bowers’ “Dark Earth and Summer,” for example, can be reduced to.

Nor are we being told how the speaker “feels” or “thinks,” as in Auden’s characterization of himself as “uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade,” or Yeats telling us how “I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair/ Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth/ In something that all others understand or share…”.

We have moved rapidly from the familiar general concept of religious meditation to a more specific and unfamiliar something, the body “tak[ing] acquaintance” of “this heap of dust.”

And not only does the third line not rhyme with the first, as you would have expected, but there is a dwindling down in the rhyme words from “devotion” (latinate, trisyllabic, a feminine ending), to the characterless but still lengthened “betimes” (two syllables, but “times” is strongly diphthongy), to the terse colloquial “dust.”

It is a progression that feels more appropriate to blank verse, a feeling reinforced by the soliloquy-like “hereness” of the speaking: a Shakespearian effect, you might say, like the contrast between the “latinate” and the “Germanic” in Macbeth’s “No, this my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/ Making the green one red.”


So, you wait for a development, a statement, about that getting acquainted; and then—Zap! Pow!

Not only does the development concern the heap of dust rather than the getting acquainted (the soul doing this, the body doing that). The individuation intensifies with the extraordinary phrase “the blast of Death’s incessant motion” and what follows it.

The major syntactical incompleteness compels us to move on to the fourth line before we have fully assimilated those difficult linked concepts (blast? motion?). And the fifth line, rather than unpacking and clarifying the previous one, complicates it further and magnificently with “Fed by the exhalation of our crimes” (crimes, not sins).

You don’t finally come to rest syntactically until the middle of the next line with “Drives all at last.”

By this time, especially given the conceptual compression of that blast of an incessantly moving and impersonal death (not at all the conventional spectre with book and scythe) that is fed by the “exhalation” of our slightly more personified crimes—by this time the rhyme scheme has virtually been lost to the mind’s ear.

The dramatic “motion” (energetic in relation to “dust,” both conceptually and aurally) simply doesn’t relate back tidily to “devotion.” And however many times I say over the poem to myself, “crimes” is so embedded in its context (“fed by the exhalation of our crimes”) and so different semantically that I have to struggle to summon back the very low-keyed “betimes” that it is echoing.

So that when the poem moves forward again with:

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,

the sense of a neat abcabc scheme has been lost.


Furthermore, the unbalancing with respect to the doings of the soul and those of the body has now extended into the conceptualizing of the poem.

Instead of being enabled to become more at home in the mode of talk in the previous long sentence, we now get an analytical amplification of what the thinking mind can derive from contemplating the place where the speaker (but he doesn’t come embodied to the mind’s eye) is presumably kneeling for the purpose of his devotion. With a curious bifurcation whereby these reflectings appear separate from whatever is going on in the devotions.

And if the exposition has become more analytical and the metaphors more grounded (the body “at school” is studying the heraldic devices and inscriptions on the wall monuments and recognizing how it too is bound for death), the diction, apart from that “dissolution,” loses its Latinity, and the rhyme words not only become more ordinary but set up a kind of alternate stanza of their own: “trust—learn—birth—lines—discern—earth.”

It takes a powerful effort not to see “earth” as the closing rhyme of a pair of triplets.


These unbalancings, with their thwartings of the mind’s desire for the stability of substantial stanzas, is, as the next stretch of the poem brings out, mimetic.

As soon as you’ve have settled on “earth” with a sense of having come back to base structurally, the next line—the animated “These laugh at jet and marble, put for signs” contrasting with the sombre “Comparing dust with dust and earth with earth”—comes along to disrupt things. It echoes “lines” and is in fact the true closure, but because of its own vigour (“These laugh at jet and marble”) works as an opening rather than a closure.

And in fact the next stretch of the poem, the one that deals most fully with the subject announced by the title, is increasingly dramatic.


In contrast to the first sentence of the poem, with its major universal concepts of soul, body, death, and crime, and the second, with its processes of scholarship, deciphering, and inference-making, the statement,

These laugh at jet, and marble put for signs
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting

brings into the poem a common-humanity attitude towards death, time, and the dissolution of bodily and social identity.

The organic dust and earth laugh at the shiny black jet and pale marble and their attempt (or the attempt of those who have had the monuments set there) to—to what? to identify one heap of dust, one disintegrated body, as being superior to another, I suppose.

And the two-and-a-half-line sentence, unrhyming and undiluted by any opening clause, moves forward increasingly fast, as if emphasizing the absence of any stopping-point, the impossibility of a holding back.

In contrast to “Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth,” with its balancing and its marked caesura, “These laugh at jet and marble put for signs” advances without pause, and “To sever the good fellowship of dust,”with its light opening iamb and its two pyrrhics or near-pyrrhics, is the fastest moving line in the poem. The sentence ends in mid-line with the feminine “meeting.”


In the sentence that follows, also short, there is an almost cartoon-like quality to the image in the sardonic question, so final in its unanswerability:

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?

This is the language of a standing-against—the language of the not rich, the not old-family, the not concerned with the perpetuation of one’s noble-looking bodily appearance.

Moreover, if the image of all those busts bowing and kneeling and falling flat on their faces—the topplings all going on more or less at the same time—is cartoon-like, it is a magisterial cartooning, as in a sermon, and its weightiness is increased formally in yet another unbalancing, so that the effect of these two-and-a-half lines is very different from that of the previous two-and-a-half.

If the movement of “and spoil the meeting” is fast and falling, the last four syllables of “What shall point out them” are stepped progressively in a rising pattern, the last three words of “and fall down flat” have an almost equal weighting, and the final word of the sentence (“trust”) is also stressed.


And the ostensible four-squareness of those stanzas on the page is becoming even more subverted.

This time the mind, in its search for recurrences and resting-places, has created a five-line pseudo-stanza: “signs—dust—them—flat—trust.”

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?

But it is an unstable structure. It feels odd, as if parts had been falling away without your quite realizing how.

And the sentence beginning “These laugh at jet and marble,” coming at the center of the poem, has overridden the division between the first two and the last two stanzas. While seeming to be simply developing the idea of “comparing dust with dust and earth with earth,” it has also reintroduced the word “dust” as a rhyme word, so that there is another swerve away from a tidy progression, a laying of one stanzaic block upon another.

Moreover, the “good fellowship of dust” contrasts with the mere “heap of dust” in the first stanza, and the glad trust in that stanza contrasts with the stiff having-in-trust of the monuments.

It is all very different from the majestic opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65—“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea/ But sad mortality o’ersways their power”—with its clear relationships and its implicit validation of the idea of imperial dominion.


In the sentence that follows, with yet another change of tone signaled by the intimacy and tenderness of its opening “Dear flesh”, you (well, I) simply give up the attempt to divide things into formal units while trying to follow the thought:

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 may’st know,
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust.

There are now no conventional rhymings at all to hang on to, only echoings and repetition (“them…flat…dust…trust…dust… trust”), and the sentence sweeps you forward, with its succession of brief parallel clauses, to that final “dust.”

But while the sentence, with its return to flesh and prayer and lesson-drawing, feels at first as if it is going to be a recapitulation like that in the third stanza of Herbert’s own lovely and graceful “Virtue” (“Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses”), there is in fact nothing tidily summatory about it.

The “dear flesh,” warm and dear in comparison to the dust and marble, has a kind of natural vitality now, so that its cravings are not simply reprehensible, let alone criminal. It is not simply something to be entombed, nor is it quite the same, quite as specific, shaped, and reproducible in jet and marble, as the body.

It is something that is common to everyone, including those labouring church-goers whom the monuments disdain—sons and daughters of that earth from which all, as descendants of Adam, are truly descended. And if it is natural to laugh and enjoy good fellowship, it is also, in a sense, natural for the flesh to grow fat and wanton in its craving for it.

Moreover, given the talk about descent, and the movement from “kiss” to “Dear flesh,” and thence to “stem,” it is not, it seems to me, mere exegetical ingenuity to sense, in a poem of so many interconnectings, a sexual presence lurking in the references to flesh that grows fat and wanton in its cravings, and our common descent from the fallen couple in the garden.


In the second part of the sentence there is a thrusting forward that makes even more dramatic the imagery—a slightly elusive imagery—of its admonition to the self.

You expect the sentence, and the lesson, to end with “that measures all our time,” the tripartite progression of “that flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust that measures all our time” paralleling the progression of “when they shall bow and kneel and fall down flat.”

There would be a conventional reductiveness there, the lively striving body actually (when looked at correctly) only a contained dust.

But the sentence keeps going, and there is an extraordinary drama to the last part of it, given the hovering induced by “which also shall” (is it the glass, the dust, or “all our time” which is going to be talked about?) and the energy of “crumbled.”

The admonition to know “that flesh is but the glass” suggests something small and limited. But it is a glass

which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust.

And there is something magnificent and tragic about all this that counterpoints the ostensible mid-sentence collapse (the surge forward broken) into that recurring “dust.”

We move quite beyond the confines of the church walls here, into an inexorable but vast futurity. Viewed thus, the flesh, the body, and the whole perceiving mind are far more charged with gravitas than those grave monuments and their arrested moments of time.


In comparison with all that has preceeded it, the closing sentence of the poem—

Mark, here below,
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall

feels a bit perfunctory.

The “ashes” are introduced abruptly and not developed. It requires no particular effort of mind to agree that the ashes of the dead are without lust. And the fact that you cease to feel lust—or anything else—when you’re dead has no obvious moral bearing on how you (for of course it’s a whole self and not a mere body that’s involved) conduct yourself with the prospect of your own eventual death in mind.

It is as if Herbert has essentially already said all that he needed to say, so that the attempt to finish on a more conventionally moralistic note without unbalancing the poem has resulted in his having to move too elliptically.

Moreover, the word “fall,” with the uneasy tension in it between the biblical associations of the word and the emblematic pictoriality that it derives from the earlier image of the falling monuments, draws us away from the lying-down reality of dying.

However, maybe there’s a fleshing-out if “thy” gets an increased emphasis—thy fall, thy own fall.


But these are logical—“merely” logical—reservations.

From a formal, but not, I think, merely formal, point of view, it is interesting how underplayed the ending of the poem is, both in the brevity of the sentence and the way in which “below” (given the “dust” that has preceded it in the line) dwindles away as a rhyme word, and how, even allowing for changes in pronunciation, the final “fall” does not immediately connect up with “shall” as a clinching rhyme.

It is one last instance of the avoidance of conventional symmetries, the refusal to rest on a single taken-for-granted ground, including the ground of form, that has gone on throughout this extraordinary poem.


However, I mustn’t stop there, on my own Q.E.D. closure.

As I said earlier, there are risks in what I have been trying to do. And one of them is the Unspoiled Beach effect.

Have I, in celebrating the openness of “Church Monuments” in such detail, been behaving like a travel writer whose praise of an undiscovered paradise leads to a loss of the seclusion for which he’s praising it?

Have I, in effect, been imposing an imperial reading of my own, imperial in the Brooks-and-Warren fashion, on the living experience of others, and making the poem, for them, a tamer one?

I would prefer to think not.


I’ve been talking about committing poems to memory, and about saying over this particular one, “Church Monuments,” from memory.

And just as committing a poem to memory is, for most of us, a far more complex and interior matter than making a photocopy of it, so saying over a poem from memory, unless you have fly-paper-retentiveness, is a good deal different from pressing a button and making a computer print-out.

There’s likely to be a large gap between what you hear as you voice a poem silently to yourself, and what you hear when you listen to a recording that you’ve made of it.


Inevitably, when it comes to saying over, we all hear poems differently.

Winters’ recording of “Church Monuments,” while impeccable with respect to the metrics of the poem, and in places very moving, is not how I myself hear the poem. His was not the voice that sounded in my head as I lay in the winter darkness of Mexico and lived with the poem behind closed eyes in the strange everywhere-and-nowhere space that is to be found there.

There is no one right voice, nor have we any way of knowing how poets themselves, in pre-recording days, heard their poems.

And even when they’ve made recordings themselves, there will probably be gaps between the voices on the tapes or disks and those inside their head. Who knows what “Prufrock” sounded like to its twenty-three-year-old author, or what that author would have made of the gloomy later recordings of it by the man many years his senior whom he had become?


Moreover, when you give yourself to a poem in a start-to-finish saying-over, a lot of other things simply fall away, which is why you can cherish the stabilizing, the living altogether in the now of the saying-over, that you attain with poems that you really care about.

Particularly if you are committing yourself to what you hope will be a halfway decent recording of it.

You cannot dwell simultaneously in the poem and its commentaries.

And the kind of commenting that I’ve attempted—listening to myself listening to the poem, as it were—has involved disjoining aspects of the poem that in fact coexist.

In places, too, I may have falsified, or described only clumsily, what I “saw” and felt. I am still not sure whether the sexual aspect that I hinted at would in fact be there for the voice that has been speaking in the poem up to that point.

So I don’t really expect that a reader for whom “Church Monuments” is living discourse will find his or her mind “invaded” by what I have said.


However, I’m not trying now to return us to a welter of subjectivities in which nothing is really seriously discussable at all, since there is nowhere in which those subjectivities can meet and be to some extent grounded.

I have done my best to point to things that are there in the poem, there in formal terms or that can be related back to formal features of the poem. And if the poem has grown on me as it has, this is partly because of a particular aspect of its general thereness.

It is not a poem that we need to go “behind” in order to understand it—a poem that is a species of façade behind which we find, if we care to explore, the more “real” realities of George Herbert’s life and thought, or seventeenth-century Anglican thinking more generally.

Nor can it be subsumed into a lower-common-denominator genre, the Herbert poem, the Metaphysical poem, and so forth.

In these respects it takes its place alongside poems like Wyatt’s “They flee from me,” and Nashe’s “Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,” and Villon’s “Frères humans qui après nous vivez,” and Hardy’s “The Haunting,” and others of which, mutatis mutandis, the same kind of thing can be said.

And its thereness, and its richness, is a function of how the words follow each other in time, in constantly shifting, even if at times very quietly and subtly, metrical, syntactical, and stanzaic relationships that are unique in Herbert’s poetic oeuvre.


“Church Monuments” came alive for me as itself, not as a piece of the George Herbert story, about which I know almost nothing; or a typical seventeenth-century devotional poem; but simply as a poem like “The Haunter,” or “They flee from me,” or “Frères humains,” or any of those other marvelous poems that don’t require you to be a specialist in order to appropriate them with full commitment.

And when, two years later, in that Mexican winter of 1989-90, I went exploring in it again, pencil in hand and index cards in front of me, it was partly because I was trying, away from libraries and bookstores, to do a critical reading in which I opened myself to works that I cared about, without knowing in advance what I would be saying about them.

I was also resisting the literary-theoretical assumption that since “we” all know by now, or think we do, how we are meant to read this or that work, what’s called for now is a demonstration that in fact “we” are mistaken in that belief.


I said earlier that “Church Monuments” isn’t Gray’s “Elegy.”

It isn’t that steady, sombre, meditative progression, each stanza a unit, a defining, in which the things defined—the evening scene, the mortality of the rich and powerful (those “animated busts” recalling Herbert’s perhaps), the talents lost because of the accidents of birth—all in a sense external to the speaker, albeit with a strong emotional projection into them.

It doesn’t invite us out into reflections about that social world, and about the unfairness of life in it, responded to with a kind of melancholy stoicism, or at least a sense of fatality, with no likelihood of social change, but with a strong affirmation of the “invisible” poor as centers of individual being and potentials, and a celebrating of the sensitive (but powerless and ineffectual) educated observer (proto-Romantic, you might say).


Nor is it a precursor to that better known and better reputed poem dealing with death and dissolution, Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirits Seal,” with its neat two-stanza juxtaposition—then/now—and the interior neatness of its eight two-line units: I/She/She/It

A slumber did my spirits seal.
I had no human fears.
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force.
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.

The poem is graceful, and the feeling of calm security in the first stanza recalls a little the calm evoked in Herbert’s “Virtue” (“Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright”). The penultimate line, with the kinaesthetic “Rolled round” and the magisterial “ Earth’s diurnal course,” is the making of the poem.

But it is a peculiarly visual poem, the general points in the two stanzas being taken in almost immediately.

And if the poem has been the subject of interminable discussion and elaborate commentaries, it is because it is so little there formally that you’re reduced—or, if you like it, stimulated—to an explication of key terms that are themselves insufficiently defined by their interconnectings.

The iambic lines, without a single reversed foot or spondee in them, when said over, simply slide by, in contrast to those of such quatrains as:

I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow;
On every human face I meet
Marks of weariness, marks of woe,


Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night
His matchless son does meditate.

Or, more simply,

Western wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.


And when, in the precipitation of memory, you try to slow Wordsworth’s lines down and weight them, you’re driven back to the autobiographical “I,” the uncertainly referential “she,” the nature of that slumber, and that sealing, and those ultra-wide-angle “human fears.”

Which gets you into some odd problems with respect to the authority of the voice.

You not only have to project yourself into, and more or less invent, what it’s like to be in a figurative “slumber”—or to have your “spirit,” a compartment of the self, be in one—where you have no human fears (as distinct from what other kinds?).

You also have to take on trust that this did actually, real-world, happen. The speaking “I” says that it did, therefore it did. I mean, that’s the implication. But for how long, you may not unreasonably wonder, since it affects the nature and significance of that “slumber”?

I mean, what was the relationship here? Is “she” a child or young adolescent, charming with the seemingly permanent charm of youth? Or was it a love relationship, even a marital one? And if so, are we getting, perhaps, a slightly self-centred and sentimentalizing love-blindness, an insufficient awareness of the Other, a milder version of what Hardy so poignantly gives us in“The Going”?

The terms “motion” and “force,” since we have both of them, presumably require some kind of glossing in their interaction. So does the distinction between “rocks” and “stones.”


No doubt all these impertinent questions have long since been answered by Wordsworth specialists. But that is partly my point. The information has to be imported into the poem, because it isn’t discernibly there on the page. And I question whether, when you’re voicing the poem with full commitment, or trying to, it can be effectively part of the experiencing during that reading.

You’re also liable to be getting into a circularity when you have to find some of the meaning of one poem in another poem (I’m aware that there were the “Lucy” poems) or a prose text (a letter by Wordsworth, or whatever it was)?

So we are into, romantically, the Wordsworth Story, a sort of composite of the poems, and their commentators, and what Wordsworth “himself” in The Prelude tells us about his self.


Church Monuments isn’t like that. Nor are all the other poems in Winters’ and Fields’ great anthology, Quest for Reality. And their interactions with one another are complementary, not explanatory, a constellation of presents, with at times strong differences, at others surprising resemblances.

“Church Monuments” belongs in there with powerful, difficult, later-twentieth-century poems about mortality like Edgar Bowers’ “Dark Earth and Summer,” Thom Gunn’s “In Santa Maria del Popolo,” and Scott Momaday’s “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion.”

And when you look at such poems, and at a number of the others that I’ve mentioned and which Winters celebrated, you realize how crude is the conventional dichotomy of “classical” and “romantic,” and how simplistic, too, can be the idea of what makes a poem “modern.”




I have now (2003) obtained Brian Kemp’s Church Monuments (1985), a brief, authoritative, illustrated guide to the subject. It leaves no room for doubt that the monuments in question would have been, as I had always assumed, inside a church or cathedral. And his statement that “In the early seventeenth century the trend towards lifelike realism was taken further with the first appearance of seated and standing effigies…” suggests that Herbert was dealing with what would at that time have been modern phenomena—perhaps nouveaux riches ones.

According to Professor Armstrong: “In churches of this time, the deceased may be buried under the stones on the floor, behind plaques on the wall (both true in Salisbury Cathedral) and in monuments inside the church (George Herbert’s parents at St. Nicholas Church, Montgomery, Wales). George Herbert himself was buried under the altar at St. Andrew’s, Bemerton, Wiltshire.”


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