The good fellowship of dust

Reading George Herbert and teaching Shakespeare I became intrigued by one of the period's most insistent images: dust. It stands in for death, decay, futility, vanity - many things of which they found it necessary to remind themselves. It's both the stuff and the doom of human life. Hamlet’s ‘quintessence of dust’ is everywhere in Herbert. The dust of worldliness ‘stings his eyes’ whenever he’s tempted to want the world. His habits and frailties make him ‘guilty of dust and sinne’ when Love invites him in. Christ’s death makes his heart dust, before it can be transmuted into gold by the resurrection. One of my favourite poems is the slightly strange “Church Monuments”, where he bids his wayward body take acquaintance of a heap of dust, so it can grow accustomed to its fate. I wonder if Herbert's parishioners very often came into the church to find their pastor lying on the floor, or in earnest contemplation of a monument.

While that my soul repairs to her devotion,
Here I entomb my flesh, that it betimes
May take acquaintance of this heap of dust;
To which the blast of death's incessant motion,
Fed with the exhalation of our crimes,
Drives all at last. Therefore I gladly trust
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet and marble put for signs,
To sever the good fellowship of dust,
And spoil the meeting. What shall point out them,
When they shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat
To kiss those heaps, which now they have in trust?
Dear flesh, while I do pray, learn here thy stem
And true descent; that when thou shalt grow fat,
And wanton in thy cravings, thou mayst know
That flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust. Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thyself against thy fall.