“Life” (George Herbert)

This is George Herbert’s poem “Life”, published in 1633, with a few modern spellings substituted and some notes below. You can hear my musical setting of the poem for baritone and harp at https://soundcloud.com/eschen42/a-posie

“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 evolving interpretation:

  • Some serenity comes to the poet as he humbly accepts how little he can control his experience. He finds hope and peace in accepting the impermanence of what he might do or create and even of life itself. I find the naming of the senses of smell and taste suggestive of thoughts that are deeply sensed and experienced rather than intellectual abstractions; the poet does not merely think these thoughts, he is fully invested in them.
  • “posie” (line 1) – A posy is 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 and generous) deeds. I think that he is at first entirely pleased with the results of his efforts.
  • “smell my remnant out” (line 2) – (Looking ahead to line 17) I think that he anticipates that his enjoyment of what he has created and done will continue, uninterrupted, for the rest of his days [http://www.georgeherbert.org.uk/archives/selected_work_43.html]
  • “tie my life within this band” (line 2) – He reflects on the circle of his life and all of its “flowers” (his deeds) that his life binds together (“band” is a synonym for “ring”) – he is ready for a life of contentment.
  • “by noon most cunningly did steal away” (line 5) – (Looking ahead to line 11) his life is already half gone, and his sense of contentment yields to an awareness of loss and impermanence [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 impermanent effect of his deeds through analogy with the fading flowers.
  • “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 and its lasting impact.
  • “smell my fatal day” (line 11) – He senses the imminence of death [ibid.].
  • “sug’ring the suspicion” (line 12) – It makes 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.
  • “straight without complaints or grief” (line 16) – He acknowledges without regret that he is so ephemeral that he may pass as quickly as the flowers.
  • “if my scent be good” (line 17) – There is the possibility of slightly sweetening his world ephemerally, as flowers do.