What is the subject of George Herbert's poem "Avarice"?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In this poem that is addressed to "Money," George Herbert makes it clear how he feels about wealth and money and what it has done to humanity. The beginning of the poem is quite unequivocal in expressing Herbert's feelings about money:

MONEY, thou bane of bliss, and source of woe, 
Whence com'st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine? 
I know thy parentage is base and low: 
Man found thee poor and dirty in a mine.

Money is addressed as if it were a person, with a "parentage" that is "base and low" and a background. Money is compared to a "poor and dirty" person found in a mine. However, despite of this poor background, money is now the "bane of bliss" and the "source of woe." Clearly Herbert feels that Money can only be regarded in negative terms.

Ironically, Herbert goes on to suggest that by making money "bright" and giving it a human face, we have in fact given money power over us, reducing our humanity and making us subject to avarice and greed:

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 dross to thee.

Because of what we have done, Money is now the "man" and we are the "dross." Money rules us, and we have exchanged places with this metal. The last rhyming couplet ends the poem making it clear how Herbert feels wealth and the desire for it is responsible for man's destruction:

Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich ; 
And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

Note the irony again in this ending. We call money our "wealth," but by so doing, we make money "rich." Whilst we search for money we only harm ourselves, falling in the "ditch."

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