Please explain "Vanitie," a poem by George Herbert. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/181056

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tinicraw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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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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