The shortness of life

This poem needs to be read alongside Herbert's Vertue, which is based on the same theme of transience, using nature imagery. In its attitude to dying, it could also be compared to his Death.

Unlike Vertue, however, Herbert makes the title immediately obvious. The posy is an emblem of his life. Both the flowers and the day (‘the day ran by') are images of transience, of the shortness of life. This is a conventional image, going back at least to Old Testament times. The prophet Isaiah talks of ‘The grass withers and the flower falls' (Isaiah 40:8), a verse quoted extensively in the rest of the Bible (for example, 1 Peter 1:24).

A posy

Posy, photo by Michael Dunne, available through Creative CommonsHowever, a posy is a particular sort of bunch of flowers, picked for their smell as much as anything. In a fairly unhygienic age, when bathing was rare; when much decayed without being disposed of; and when the smell of disease was common, posies were valued for their medicincal aroma or ‘sweet savour', to use another common biblical image (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:15-16). ‘Sugaring' is a similar term of disguise, this time applied to taste.

The application of the emblem to his life is made throughout all three stanzas: brevity in stanza one; as a guard against the smell and taste of death in stanza two; and in stanza three, the thought that even after death, there may be usefulness. Flowers can be dried and used medicinally. What would that emblemise for Herbert? Possibly the memory of a good life; or perhaps even his poems themselves. Both would be true in retrospect. And, in life, he can be a ‘sweet savour' himself and to others.

A consolation

Such a series of thoughts is a consolation for him, and that is the sort of poem it is: a consolation in the face of death. It leads him to a simple acceptance of the shortness of life – and ironically, of course, it is itself short - but effective, and that is Herbert's point.

Investigating Life
  • Compare Herbert's Life to his The Collar
    • What are the main differences in his attitude?
    • Do you think the phrase ‘I follow straight' suggests Herbert knew he was to die soon?
      • Or is it a sign of a general acceptance that life is short?
    • What does ‘my heart' represent?
  • Trace the alternation between literal and figurative language in the poem.

(see Themes and significant ideas > The Transience of Life; Being Human).

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.