“Avarice,” a sonnet by the seventeenth-century English poet George Herbert (1593-1633), is typical of its author’s work in numerous ways. Almost all of Herbert’s poems are religious. Love from and for God was of central importance in his life and writings. In “Avarice” this issue is implied more than it is openly stated: humans have turned money into an idol which they worship instead of loving their Creator. Yet the poem is typical of Herbert not only in subject matter but also in style. Its phrasing is apparently simple, clear, and straightforward, but it is also more complex than one might initially assume. In addition, in this poem as in many others, Herbert uses personification and also relies on biblical allusions. His poems are almost always in dialogue with Christian scriptures. Finally, the poem also emphasizes paradoxical ideas and phrasing—a trait that helps make it typical not only of Herbert’s writing but also of the broader style of other so-called “metaphysical” poets of his era, such as John Donne.
Line 1 opens with a direct address to a personified “Money,” treating money as if it were a living thing, which, as the rest of the poem will show, in a way it is. Human beings have almost brought money to life by worshipping it instead of God. Yet money proves itself (in a bit of nice alliteration) to be a “bane of bliss” that poisons happiness, functioning as a “source of woe” rather than as a source of any real and enduring joy. By likening money to a person over the course of many lines, Herbert in a sense shows his talent in using a “conceit,” or extended comparison—one of the techniques for which the “metaphysical” poets were best known. By drawing a comparison out over numerous lines, such poets demonstrate their own God-given wit.
The tone of Herbert’s poem is at once serious and whimsical. The speaker knows that money itself is not to blame for any of the faults attributed to it. He realizes that human beings themselves are ultimately responsible for any harm money causes. By humorously excoriating money in deliberately exaggerated and even comical terms, the speaker of this...
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