Selected Poem - 'Avarice'

Man, money and mining form the basis for Herbert’s exploration in this poem. The mine is the place where precious metals are found. Man has the mastery over these metals and makes coinage out of them, but the roles get reversed: money becomes the master over man.

'Avarice'

MOney, thou bane of blisse, & sourse of wo,
Whence com’st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poore and dirtie in a mine.
Surely thou didst so little contribute
To this great kingdome, which thou now hast got,
That he was fain, when thou wert destitute,
To digge thee out of thy dark cave and grot:
Then forcing thee by fire he made thee bright:
Nay, thou hast got the face of man;  for we
Have with our stamp and seal transferr’d our right:
Thou art the man, and man but drosse to thee.
Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich;
And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

Commentary

Herbert shows us in this short poem the power of extreme greed. Money is personified, as man addresses it directly, accusing it of being the bane – the ruin – of true happiness. It is the 'bane of bliss', appearing 'fresh and fine', but in fact it is 'base and low, poore and dirtie'.

Yet money owes everything to man. It is man who discovered metals deep underground, mined and refined them for use as money. It was man who stamped the image of the monarch upon coins. That very act, the 'stamp and seal', reversed the roles of man and money, for now 'Thou art the man': power rests with money rather than man.

The poem follows 'Sunday' with its joyful picture of the blessings which flow when people meet to celebrate the risen Christ. In 'The Church-Porch', verse 73 describes how a man by being at church 'escapes the ditch, Which he might fall in'. But there is no escape for man in this poem: he ends up in the ditch. The poem has a downbeat conclusion.

Herbert’s poetry can never be confined to the age in which he lived. The poem 'Avarice' acts as a stinging comment on our 21st century, highlighting as it does the result of extreme greed.

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