George Herbert – 6 – (“Death” – 1)

Allen Ginsberg on George Herbert continues

AG: However, when you get to “Death” on the next page. There. you get something almost Shakespearean. It’s so good, as far as its… And here what he’s done is got a stanza form which is – “Death thou wast once an un-couth hid-eous thing” – (ten) – “Nothing but bones” – (four) – “The sad effect of sadder groans” – (eight) – “Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing” – (ten) . So each stanza’s ten-four-eight-ten, in terms of the number of syllables. I haven’t analyzed it for what actual meter it is tho’ that might be interesting, but it’s a real good one. Would you like to read that, Stanley (sic)?

Student (Stanley): I’m sorry, I don’t think I have that

AG:  Oh, too late, it’s called “Death” – (page two nine-nine) – And this fits in also to our.. to the class project (of) providing a poem on death, remember? –  iambic tetrameter? – one straight line of iambics, four-beat lines, iambic tetrameter is the term for it) – and I have some of the class poems here for those of you who want them back (and I’m owed a bunch of poems) –  So, when we’re done with Herbert’s “Death” . maybe we’ll go after that..

[Student (Stanley) reads George Herbert’s “Death in its entirety]

“Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,/ Nothing but bones,/The sad effect of sadder groans:/ Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing. / For we considered thee as at some six/Or ten years hence,/After the loss of life and sense,/ Flesh being turned to dust, and bones to sticks./ We looked on this side of thee, shooting short;/ Where we did find/ The shells of fledge souls left behind, /Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort./ But since our Savior’s death did put some blood/ Into thy face,/ Thou art grown fair and full of grace, /Much in request, much sought for as a good./ For we do now behold thee gay and glad, /As at Doomsday;/ When souls shall wear their new array, /And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad./ Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust/ Half that we have/ Unto an honest faithful grave; /Making our pillows either down, or dust.”

AG: Yes.. what do you think of that poem? – It’s pretty funny.. when you get the “grave humor”, I guess – anybody? – “Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing…but thou coulds.. sing” – “But now dost sing, or now you can sing, – And… Does everybody understand this poem? Is there any difficulty with…

Peter Orlovsky: What does “uncouth” mean?

Student: No manners.

AG: No manners, right – brutal – No table-manners. Worms come and eat your squishiness up – What?

Student: The effect is rough.

AG: Yes, yes “nothing but bones?. That’s very funny actually. Death.. once.. You were once nothing but..(an)  “uncouth hideous thing,/Nothing but bones”, but now you’re alright, because Christ is coming, put some flesh into your skeletal cheeks, put some blood into your face – “Thou art grown (full and fair”….” full of grace”. “For we do now behold thee gay and glad, /As at Doomsday” – (ha! – how “gay and glad” is Doomsday? – (it’s sort of) funny, it’s a good shot, I thought, to…)

Peter Orlovsky: What does that mean “at Doomsday”?

AG: Doomsday, when everybody gets killed at Doomsday, but Doomsday is just Final Judgment Day – just like in (Pieter) Bruegel or in Hieronymus Bosch – or Last Judgment – but since his idea is that, since (Jesus) Christ has come to make a death into a resurrection for the just and Hell and dust for the unjust, we now have all to be glad and gay. Well, it’s a funny thing too with this ..the stanza form’s really fitting for that too

AG: Is that (“Death”) an amusing poem for people, or is this…? Is this a big drag or is this something interesting?… Who is dragged by this poem as, you know, formalistic boring verse?

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately eighteen  minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-two-and-a-half minutes in]

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