Synopsis of Death

Photo by P.g.champion, available through Creative CommonsThe two halves of this poem provide a great contrast. The first portrays death as an enemy to be feared, conjuring up grim images of decay similar to those common in the medieval period. The second half sees death as in some way as a friend, or at least a gateway to something positive.

According to the poet, it is Christ's own death which has made the difference. His resurrection from the dead offers hope to all who believe in him, that they too will find life beyond the grave. Death now has ‘some blood/ Into thy face', a paradoxical reversal. Partly this may be a reference to Christ's blood shed at his death and the belief that his sacrifice has made salvation possible for human beings. Partly it may be a reference to new life which will be experienced those who are accepted by God at Doomsday. They will take on new spiritual bodies as described in 1 Corinthians 15:51-56, a passage often read at Christian funeral services.

Death no longer the end

So, in Christian belief, death is no longer the end of life, but almost like a host, ushering Christians into new life and a new transformed body (‘souls shall wear their new array'). Until the Day of Judgement believers merely ‘sleep' in death, and the grave is their bed. For pillow, then, they can choose either to have dust, as in the old pagan way of thinking; or down - soft feathers so that they lie comfortably as believers waiting in the hope of resurrection.

More on resurrection: see The Exequy by Henry King

Investigating Death
  • Look at some medieval pictures of death; see Resources and further reading for useful sites
    • Compare them with the picture Herbert gives in the first half of Death
  • How is death depicted in some computer or video games?
    • Compare that with the way in which it is depicted in the poem
    • What does Herbert mean when he says ‘and trust/ Half that we have'?
      • Why ‘half'?
  • How much do people think about death and dying today? Does our society try to protect us from the thought of death?
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