George Herbert

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Explain the poem "Vanitie" by George Herbert.

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Vanitie The narrator describes godly and ungodly types of humanity. He explains that only God has the right to be proud. The poem is a praise of God's glory.

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In the first stanza, the narrator describes the astronomer who studies the planets and stars, working to understand them on an intellectual level. He watches them and studies their movements, as carefully as if he were going to buy them, until he learns everything about them. However, there seems to be something that he is missing: the image of him "thread[ing]" the planets with his "quick-piercing mind," as one might string pearls, makes it seem like he is merely collecting knowledge without actually understanding the cosmic grandeur and beauty of the items he surveys.

The next stanza focuses on a diver who searches for an actual pearl, something that God has purposely hidden from us in order to save us from endangering ourselves in desiring it. However, the diver does risk his life only to acquire the pearl for some unnamed "her" who will wear that pearl with "excessive pride." This sin of excessive pride will lead to her "own destruction" in terms of her immortal soul. Thus, the diver endangers both himself and her in different ways.

The third stanza describes a type of scientist or doctor who is the first to come once someone has died, "Admitted to their bed-chamber, before" all of the mourners ("ordinary suitors") come to pay their respects to the dead, who will be by then "trim and dressed" for a funeral. He may "strip the creature naked" both literally and figuratively, treating the person's body as something more akin to an experiment than the remains of something spiritual and important. Again, he seems to be missing something key about life.

In the end, the narrator says, the only thing these people have found is God, whose laws have created the world around us and within us.  We do not need to look so hard to try to understand what God has created by his commands; we can simply sit back and enjoy, "with love and awe," the "glorious" results of it around us. This astronomer, diver, and chymic are actually missing out on an appreciation of life.

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George Herbert was more of a pious metaphysical poet than his more satirical contemporary John Donne; so, his poetry is more often more religious in nature with respect to and for God. In "Vanity," Herbert examines three types of men: the astronomer, the deep sea diver (merchant seeking riches), and the chemist, which he spells "chymic." Each profession is given its own stanza to which Herbert examines the purposes of each. The astronomer focuses on the universe and its workings in order to seek, to find, and to discover its secrets. Herbert says that the astronomer seems to look as if "to make a purchase" of something great and powerful that he ultimately cannot have; therefore, his efforts seem worthless.

Then, he examines the entrepreneur who risks everything to seek and to find riches like pearls. In risking so much, however, Herbert declares that pride is the source of this behavior and only danger is the result.

Finally, the chemist is examined as one who has skill enough to "strip the creature naked" and to discover all of the basic building blocks of life. But what else can this man do than to discover and ponder his own ideas and try to sell them to the highest bidder. In this, Herbert does not see much value because in all of these professions the goal is really to find God but they are all going about it the wrong way. Then Herbert ends his poem by saying, "Poor man, thou searchest round/ To find out death, but misses life at hand." Summarily, Herbert is saying that as people search for answers to life and death, they also miss out on living life in the moment. It seems as if Herbert is saying that man should enjoy life in the moment and let God deal with his own mysteries.

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