A Daring and Beautiful Duel over Death

   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.
—George Herbert, “Death” (17–20)

Do you ever wonder if our faith can really be true? We outlandishly claim, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” But we never see that happen to anyone. This last week, we celebrated our Easter hope. Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). But the very air we breathe in our culture fills us with dread that this life is all there is.

The message we absorb is to live for now, because when our bodies stop, we stop; there is nothing more. This can seem like brave realism while our faith in life to come seems but a fantasy. How can we answer such reasonable doubts that plague even ardent believers in the midnight hours? I’ve been helped by imagining a literary duel between skepticism and faith. I speculate that this battle occurred between two of the greatest English poets, who wrote just a generation apart.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) threw down a gauntlet through the graveyard scene in Hamlet. With rapier clarity, Shakespeare evoked our secret fear that in the end the most glorious person ends up as but a clod of dirt plugging a hole. A few years ago, I witnessed the power of Benedict Cumberbatch enacting this scene. I felt my faith reeling. Who could ever write an adequate answer? But not long after, I reread the short poem “Death” by George Herbert (1593–1633). What if Herbert’s poem deliberately took the blow of Hamlet’s realism and then, against the ropes of existential despair, deftly countered with a more triumphant hope?

Follow the Body

Decades earlier, even as a bored teenager enduring an interminable play, I snapped back to attention when Hamlet leapt into the grave and picked up the skull of Yorick, once the king’s jester. We’re fascinated and terrorized to see what lies under our skin. The skull is, of course, necessarily a dead person, and so it has ever symbolized the power of death. It is the emblem of the wisdom tradition of memento mori: remember that you die. As far back as Genesis 3:19, we are reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The bones in a grave grimly demand that we recall how quickly beauty fades and life flees away.

“The very air we breathe in our culture fills us with dread that this life is all there is.”

Hamlet remembers the full face of Yorick as he examines the ghoulish, unintended grin of a skinless skull. Once Yorick set the boy Hamlet laughing as they played and joked. But now, “My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed. . . . Where be your gibes now? . . . Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table at roar?” (5.1.194–98). The merry crowd-pleaser has only dirt for company.

This sight and smell and feel of bones in a grave cause Hamlet to consider the fate of man:

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bunghole [a plug in a cask]? (5.1.209–11)

The great conqueror Alexander has decomposed into dust, which may now be but corking a keg. Such is the humiliation of our mortal decay. Hamlet continues, picking up a biblical cadence before slamming into the mediocrity of our common fate:

Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? (5.1.216–19)

We hear an echo of Paul’s great summary of the gospel: “Christ died . . . he was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4 KJV). But Hamlet does not follow Paul to resurrection. Rather, he views our fate as the Genesis return to dust. Further transformation through the centuries means only that the clay that was once us may be used for the most menial purposes. The hard-packed dirt of the plug in the cask of ale at the pub could contain the same molecules as once comprised the body of a mighty king.

Shakespeare’s scene has leveled a serious challenge to faith in the resurrection. It’s as if he says, “Follow the body!” Those who made thousands quake with their power may now be a clump of earth keeping the wind out of a peasant’s wall. Follow the body and see that we do not rise. We merely decompose.

Who has the literary power to answer this scene? What writer can outmaneuver Shakespeare in exposing this primal fear that there’s nothing more than this life?

Beyond These Bones

Not long after attending Hamlet, I happened to reread George Herbert’s “Death.” I jolted with the realization that this could indeed be a direct literary answer to Hamlet’s despair. (In the academic and court circles in which Herbert moved as a young man, awareness of Hamlet would have been as high as what we have of Hamilton today. I think it’s likely that Herbert saw the play, and almost certain he had at least read it.)

With Hamlet in the Grave

Death once again is personified as a skull. The poem opens with words that Hamlet could have spoken:

   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. (1–4)

For readers in the early seventeenth century, “Death” easily evoked Hamlet in the graveyard. The merry tunes of Yorick were silent in the mouth of a skull. In fact, Herbert’s poem gets more graphic than Shakespeare’s scene. He takes us beyond Yorick’s jesting at a feast to his dying with the moans of terminal suffering, surrounded by the grieving sighs of those who stood by. The juxtaposition between the boisterous laughter at table and the groans upon the bed of death makes this skull become hideous in our hands. To hold the remains of a living person as we imagine his pangs of death seems uncouth: totally inappropriate. In this duel, Herbert will not let Shakespeare best him in horrific realism.

“The bones in a grave grimly demand that we recall how quickly beauty fades and life flees away.”

Even in this first stanza, Herbert is already building the foundation of his counter-hope to death. The “sadder groans” remind us of Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22 KJV). After the fall of humanity, death entered creation and everything “was made subject to vanity” and placed in “the bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:20–21 KJV). We groan under the futility that everything living in this world must die.

But the glorious twist in Romans 8 is that this subjection to mortality occurred as an act of hope on God’s part. Rather than let our sin be eternalized, God introduced a natural end until the time comes for the full liberation of all creation into new life (Romans 8:21 KJV). So the groans of death are also birth pangs, evoked by our longing for “the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23 KJV). We groan not just in hopeless sorrow, but precisely because we intuit that there is more to come.

Herbert’s next stanza continues in a way that recalls Hamlet’s gruesome question to the gravedigger: “How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?” (5.1.168). The sexton’s reply of eight or nine years fits within the poem’s expectation of decay:

   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. (5–8)

Herbert has taken his readers right into the grave with Hamlet, observing what happens to people we know in the decade after they die. We feel the loss of “life and sense.” Hamlet’s reflections looked back farther in time, pondering the results of decomposition through the scattering centuries. That’s why he makes us feel that all human history is encompassed in decay. But Herbert’s next stanza reveals that Hamlet actually had a narrow view:

   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. (9–12)

Normally, we look on this side of death, the side of material life returning to the earth. That view, declares Herbert’s poem, is shallow. We shoot short. We come up with only a partial answer to what happens to us. The poem wants us to absolutely, realistically follow the body from flesh to dust, from crown to beer barrel. But not to stop there.

Souls Reclothed

Something has happened to give a longer — much longer — and higher view of death:

   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. (13–16)

This is the turning point in the contest. This is the suplex move in a wrestling match, when one combatant uses the full weight of his opponent against him. It is a move that risks defeat and dire injury as the wrestler lifts his opponent, leans fully back, and then flips the other over his head. In theological terms, God created humanity, and humanity sinned, inviting ubiquitous death into creation. But once upon a glorious time, God entered the death-filled world as a man. That God-man died. And paradoxically defeated death. Jesus took the full force of all our dying into himself. He alone among men did not merit death. But on the cross he freely embraced it. He gathered death to himself until it killed him. That appeared to be Jesus’s defeat. Instead it was his suplex. He flipped death in resurrection.

Christ died by exsanguination. It appeared that precious blood was spilled in waste upon the stone and dirt of Golgotha. But Herbert makes us imagine that Christ’s blood was poured into death’s skull, bringing death to life. Paul wrote, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Jesus declared, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). But who could imagine that Jesus included death itself as an enemy to be loved back to life? Here is the genius and novelty of Herbert. Jesus by dying made a friend of death for us! Now death is someone on everyone’s guest list as the life of the party — or, more correctly, as the one who ushers us into the life of the party.

Herbert describes why:

   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. (17–20)

He echoes Paul: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump . . . and the dead shall be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52 KJV). Grim death, personified as a skull, now becomes personified in glad souls reclothed in everlasting bodies. Death’s bones will be transformed from bunghole stopper to resurrected beauty.

So Herbert concludes with a peacefulness in direct contrast to Hamlet’s agitated melancholy:

   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. (21–24)

Pillows of Dust

Herbert met the challenge from Hamlet’s holding Yorick’s skull. He owned the graphic realism, embraced it, and then exposed how mere skepticism is ultimately a failure of imagination, a narrow response to the reality opened up by Christ. The riches and depth of Jesus’s answer make the realism of Hamlet seem shallow. Our Savior came as a man to the place where all die. He came in such a way that, paradoxically, God could die. His suplex move on the cross not only defeated but transformed death. He put some blood back into death’s face. In a sense, he reconciled with his last enemy. He turned the other cheek and made, on our behalf, a friend of death for those in Christ.

I confess that Hamlet’s challenge has sometimes unnerved me. But I give thanks that I have a literary champion. Herbert took up the skull and embraced death as an agent of transformation from lowliness to glory. Death’s “bones with beauty shall be clad.” And we can lie down in peace, whether on a pillow of down in our beds or of dust in our graves.