“Life” (George Herbert)

This is George Herbert’s poem “Life”, published in 1633, with a few modern spellings substituted and some notes below.


“Life” (by George Herbert)

I made a posie, while the day ran by:
here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
    my life within this band.
But Time did beckon to the flowers, and they
by noon most cunningly did steal away,
    and wither’d in my hand.

My hand was next to them, and then my heart:
I took, without more thinking, in good part
    Time’s gentle admonition:
who did so sweetly death’s sad taste convey,
making my mind to smell my fatal day;
    yet sug’ring the suspicion.

Farewell dear flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
fit, while ye liv’d, for smell or ornament,
    and, after death, for cures.
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
since if my scent be good, I care not if
    it be as short as yours.


Notes and my interpretation:

  • The poet works to come into proper relationship with the fact that life can be very short. I find his treatment to be very hopeful.
  • The places that the poet names the physical senses of smell and taste suggest to me that he is expressing thoughts that are deeply sensed rather than intellectual abstractions. He does not merely think these thoughts, he senses and is fully invested in these thoughts.
  • “posie” (line 1) – a bouquet of flowers (sense 1) or an inscription in a ring (sense 2) [https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/posy]. Flowers may have a scent, and an inscription may inspire (hopefully wise) deeds – so, a “scent” in this poem may be a proxy for his deeds.
  • “smell my remnant out” (line 2) – (looking ahead to line 17) consider the impact of how he spends his remaining years [http://www.georgeherbert.org.uk/archives/selected_work_43.html]
  • “tie my life within this band” (line 2) the circle of his life on which he reflects, and all of its “flowers” (i.e., his deeds) that it binds together (“band” is a synonym for “ring”).
  • “by noon most cunningly did steal away” (line 5) – (looking ahead to line 11) his life is half gone [ibid.]
  • “my hand was next to them, and then my heart” (line 7) – as the inscription in a ring is next to the skin, he senses the effect of his deeds.
  • “I took without more thinking” (line 8) – it did not take much thought to sense the lesson
  • “Time’s gentle admonition” (line 9) – he accepts the limitation of his time here on what he can do
  • “smell my fatal day” (line 11) – sense the imminence of death [ibid.]
  • “sug’ring the suspicion” (line 12) – making the thought of death less unpalatable [ibid.]
  • “after death, for cures” (line 15) – Some dried flowers are used as herbal medications; perhaps he imagines that his works (or even this poem) can bring healing after he is gone. Indeed, the poet died within the few years between when he wrote this poem and when it was published [ibid.], but his poems have made life more sweet for the generations that came after him.
  • “if my scent be good” (line 17) – if I can sweeten my world as flowers do.