In Herbert’s “Doomsday,” the first line of every stanza, “Come away,” serves as a calling for all the souls to return to their bodies and come to judgment day. The repetition of “Come away” makes the calling insistent and steady. The only time there is a comma after “Come away,” is on the first line, which is interesting because the subsequent line says to “Make no delay” and a comma provides a pause, a delay (Herbert, 289, ll. 1-2). This pause shows that it takes a moment for the souls to respond to the calling. After this first instance, there are no commas after the first line of the stanzas and so no pause or delay of the souls rising for judgment day.
The “dust to rise” symbolizes the resurrection where the ashes of bodies are being risen for judgment day (l. 3). With the irritation of the eyes in the next line, it is also literal dust being kicked up. The “thy trumpet” is God heralding the souls to judgment day (l. 10). Only this music will cure the soul’s “pains” because it is when the soul will finally know whether it is going to heaven or hell (l. 12).
The “lesson” the souls may have learned is to confess in order to be forgiven (l. 18). When “thy flock doth stray,” it means some souls will be too happy to be back on earth, or know that their judgment will not be good, that they will run away (l. 20). Some souls will be lost when they return to their bodies as the “winds” will scatter their ashes (l. 21). The “friend” could be both fellow ashes as well as living people that will be smothered by the amount of ashes rising (l. 22). The word “vapors” is initially reminiscent of a smell, such as the stink of dead bodies, but it is made concrete into a “plague,” showing that the ashes have become like a plague of locusts (l. 23-4). The “public woe” makes it clear that living people will be extremely bothered by the clouds of ashes being risen (l. 24).
The last stanza shows a large shift from the first stanza, where the action was gradually beginning, to asking God to “Help our decay” (l. 26). This line is calling for an acceleration in action. It can literally mean the decay of dead bodies, which the “parceled out” ashes all over the world would help support (l. 28). However, it could also mean the decay of people’s souls. That Herbert used “Man” instead of dust or bodies, suggests there is something not right with mankind itself (l. 27). It seems mankind’s soul has been split apart because there are different religions all over the world.
If the narrator is speaking about the decay of people’s souls, then the last two lines make more sense as a recognition that people are not united to one religion and that God is ultimately praiseworthy because He will take all of them anyway. If not, the last two lines seem to be abruptly ended because the narrator says how the souls being risen are “broken,” yet God will be praised (l. 29). There is all this confusion going on with souls trying to find their bodies and with the ashes of different people being all mixed together, which makes this judgment day chaotic and disorderly. Yet, the narrator is not questioning this mayhem, but instead has faith in God’s plan.
Herbert, George. “Doomsday.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry. Ed. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York: Norton, 2006. 289. Print.