“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 poem implicitly reminds us that it is humans who abuse money, not the other way around. By using phrases such as “bane of bliss” (1) and “fresh and fine” (2), the speaker shows that he is having fun, even as he deals with an issue that is ultimately very serious. He mocks money even as he excoriates it.
Line 3 may offer a pun, or double meaning, in its use of the word “parentage” (a word that further extends the “conceit” comparing money to a person). On the one hand, money’s parent is the literal earth, from which it comes in the form of gold or other so-called “precious” metals. On the other hand, the true parents of money are the human beings who create it, value it, and treat it as the most important aspect of their lives. Paradoxically, money—the source of material riches—was “poor” (4) before man found it and gave it worth. Humans take gold, “poor and dirty” (4), from a mine, but they make themselves figuratively poor and dirty in the process.
In the stanza’s second quatrain (or four-line unit), the speaker continues to address money as if it were a living person. Money, the speaker says, originally contributed “little” to “this great kingdom” (5-6)—with the noun “kingdom” implicitly reminding us that the true King of the earth is God, who should be worshipped for that reason. Humans,...
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however, have allowed money to usurp God’s rule; they dig money out of the “dark” earth (8), thereby revealing their own inner darkness and their tendency to sin. Humans originally found money “destitute” (7), but it is now one reflection and aspect of their own spiritual impoverishment. Great effort had to be made to bring gold out of the ground, but now that effort has damaged those who worked so hard.
Humans made gold “bright” by “forcing” it with “fire” (9), phrasing that most obviously refers to the process by which gold ore is melted down and turned into coins. Yet some readers may also hear an ominous, hellish undercurrent here in the idea of being tortured with fire. In any case, gold has now been given “the face of man” (that is, coins bear the images of kings and other rulers), but such phrasing can also suggest the ways in which worship of money reflects a kind of self-idolatry. Gold, in and of itself, can be used for any purpose, good or bad. It is humans who turn gold and money into reflections of their own self-centered pride, and such pride was traditionally considered the root of all sin. By idolizing money, humans have debased themselves in ways far worse than any coin could ever be debased.
In the poem’s closing couplet, the speaker once more emphasizes paradoxes. It is humans who have attributed value to gold and thus made “rich” a gross material object that has no real intrinsic value. And it is humans who, by uplifting gold, have lowered themselves both morally and spiritually. By symbolically falling into a “ditch” (14), humans have made themselves figuratively dirty. They will not be able to emerge from the hole they have fallen into without hard work and, especially, without the helping hand of God.