Poem of the Day: ‘Church Monuments’

Considered by at least one American poet to be one of the greatest poems in the English language.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The Blackleech tomb at Gloucester Cathedral. Via Wikimedia Commons

The American poet Yvor Winters (1900–1968) considered “Church Monuments,” by George Herbert (1593–1633), to be not only Herbert’s finest poem, but one of the greatest poems in the English language. But what’s striking about this judgment is that Winters held “Church Monuments” to be an anomaly in Herbert’s body of work. Herbert’s poetry was largely marked, Winters once wrote to his friend Allen Tate, with a “cloying and almost infantile pietism.”

Herbert’s poems, Winters added, including some of his most anthologized pieces, might appeal to readers who shared the poet’s religious sentiments, or were “in search of easy emotion of any kind.” “Church Monuments” struck him as the work of an entirely different poet: a poet who was still George Herbert, but tuned into another register altogether.

We might push back against at least some of these pronouncements. We might ask what exactly is infantile or cloying in Herbert’s undeniably sincere piety — unless sincerity of belief is itself on trial as matter for serious poetry. As for emotion, it’s certainly present in the poems of “The Temple,” but how easy, really, is it?

Meanwhile, as attentive Sun readers will already know, having read such previous Poems of the Day as “Lent” and “Jordan (I),” other modernist critics besides Winters have struggled to place and rank Herbert, the unabashedly devotional poet, among the voices of the English canon. Some, including the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), have simply known Herbert’s poems “inside and out,” as part of the makeup of their own minds, even when religious faith was not an obvious element in that makeup.

Whether or not we ultimately agree with anyone else’s broad judgment of Herbert, let’s stop now to consider “Church Monuments.” However it does or does not cohere with the rest of its author’s work, it remains a remarkable and singular poem. Its pentameter sestets, rhymed abcabc, meditate on the experience of praying in church, when the church is full of graves. Previous generations of believers lie buried beneath the stones of the floor, their resting places marked with brasses and tablets.

While the speaker’s soul ascends in prayer, his body remains firmly among these bodies, an ephemeral “fellowship of dust” which he will one day join. But the poem resists the easier metaphysical temptation to regard body and soul as binary, polarized entities. The marble tombs contain these bodies, rendered by death and time from their solid, and fallen, physicality, to something less tangible and more pure. It’s this image, paradoxically, that becomes the figure for both the monument of the living body and the soul which indwells it, intangible and pure. 

Church Monuments
by George Herbert

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

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

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