Sentences so good they sing.

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Sept. 1 2009 7:00 AM

Golden Grammar

The unexpected pleasures of George Herbert's sentences.

George Herbert.
George Herbert

A sentence is like a tune. A memorable sentence gives its emotion a melodic shape. You want to hear it again, say it—in a way, to hum it to yourself. You desire, if only in the sound studio of your imagination, to repeat the physical experience of that sentence. That craving, emotional and intellectual but beginning in the body with a certain gesture of sound, is near the heart of poetry. For me, a great example of this principle is the first sentence of "Church Monuments" by George Herbert.

The sentence introduces a scene: a stop in the churchyard among headstones, a moment for sorting out body and mind before entering to pray. The grammatical energy that springs from these ramifying clauses—a packed syntax that would burst into a many-branched diagram on an English teacher's blackboard—expresses a corresponding energy of meditation:

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.

A great justification for writing in rhymes and lines is that they can help articulate this sort of intricate, forceful meaning. The pointers "while" and "here" and "betimes" and "to which" are clarified by their positions at the beginnings and ends of lines; the prolonged, nearly sprawling sentence gains shape by resolving with the concise "Drives all at last."Long ago, I learned this opening sentence by heart without intending to. Eventually, the entire poem entered my memory. Sometimes I recite it to myself during bumpy airplane landings or takeoffs.

Our ability to hear how grammar surges and twists through the sounds of a sentence, over and inside a span of lines in verse, can be developed. Musicians call a similar process "ear training." I think I learned something about poetry by asking myself to find the main verb in this sentence; "drives" does something notable, but "entomb" is at the core of that blackboard diagram. Entombing—that is,going among the tombs, temporarily and permanently—is the central action here, respectively, of the soul and the "dear flesh." The soul "entombs" itself for a few minutes of "repair" in a place that will be the flesh's eternal destiny.

I like how Herbert, in a later sentence of "Church Monuments," imagines the jet and marble headstones, with their genealogies and family names, as they "shall bow, and kneel, and fall down flat/ To kiss those heaps." The series of one-syllable verbs, describing the movement of those stone tablets over decades or a few centuries, also recapitulates the graveside actions of a distraught mourner.

Here's another grammar quiz this poem inspires me to give myself: Near the end, what is the referent of the pronoun "which" in "which/ Also shall be crumbled into dust"? Time? Dust? Glass? The hourglass or the sand in it or the time it measures? Clearly, all of the above.

The poet Yvor Winters, who first showed me "Church Monuments," emphasized the sentence shapes. He also made a great point of how little in this poem is explicitly Christian compared with most of Herbert's work. I remember Winters' voice reading the phrase "Dear flesh" in a way that made me feel both senses of "dear"—beloved and expensive. I find that pause, after the two vocative syllables, tremendously moving. Grammar, "Church Monuments" makes me think, is the soul of poetry.

"Church Monuments"

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.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@—George Herbert

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "Church Monuments." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on "Church Monuments" and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing commentsbefore posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.