To understand Herbert’s poem, you must first understand his text, 1 Corinthians 15:
50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
By George Herbert
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.