Church Monumentsby George Herbert
Original Language English
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.
|-- from Metaphysical Poetry: (Penguin Classics), Edited by Colin Burrow|
With the first reading, this poem might feel rather gloomy because of its references to dust and church monuments. But take another look at the poem. Herbert's "dust" is a metaphor on several levels. First, and most obviously, it is death, the death of "dear flesh." More specifically, dust is the death of fleshly desires. Dust, then, becomes what is left after a fiery purifying process has removed the distraction of sensual desires. "How tame these ashes are, how free from lust..."
Understood this way, dust becomes a metaphor for our very essence, our most refined nature -- the spirit: "That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust..."
George Herbert is describing for us the spiritual/alchemical process in which one's true essence is finally identified and extracted through the purifying fires of life's stumbling experiences and encounters with death. The way the body encounters the world is like a "school" that teaches us to recognize the fundamentals of our own nature, "to spell his elements," and ultimately to discover our spiritual origins by studying our spiritual "dust" -- "and find his birth / Written in dusty heraldry lines."
Through this sacred process of inner alchemy, we come to understand that the body too eventually must turn to dust. But this too is a recognition that the physical is itself an expression of spirit which finally must return to to spirit: "That flesh... which also shall / Be crumbled into dust."
This is the dust or elixir used by the alchemist to uncover the perfected stone -- the true church monument. He is giving us a recipe to refine our spiritual essence in order to discover what is lasting, stable -- eternal -- within.