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Money (Thou Art the Man ...) and True Gold

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Alan Edward Roberts

Joined: 26 Nov 2008
Posts: 193
Location: Twickenham, London, UK

PostPosted: Sat Apr 13, 2013 11:23 am    Post subject: Money (Thou Art the Man ...) and True Gold Reply with quote

This is a short reflection on two poems - Avarice and The Elixir - by George Herbert (1593-1633), the poet, Member of Parliament and Anglican priest.

First of all: A definition of Avarice, taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia (

"Avarice (from Latin avarus, "greedy"; "to crave") is the inordinate love for riches.
Its special malice, broadly speaking, lies in that it makes the getting and keeping of money, possessions, and the like, a purpose in itself to live for.
It does not see that these things are valuable only as instruments for the conduct of a rational and harmonious life, due regard being paid of course to the special social condition in which one is placed.
It is called a capital vice because it has as its object that for the gaining or holding of which many other sins are committed.
It is more to be dreaded in that it often cloaks itself as a virtue, or insinuates itself under the pretext of making a decent provision for the future.
In so far as avarice is an incentive to injustice in acquiring and retaining of wealth, it is frequently a grievous sin.
In itself, however, and in so far as it implies simply an excessive desire of, or pleasure in, riches, it is commonly not a mortal sin."

And next, the sonnet by Herbert entitled ...


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.

Surely thou didst so little contribute

To this great kingdom, which thou now hast got,

That he was fain, when thou wert destitute,

To dig thee out of thy dark cave and grot:

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 transferred our right:

Thou art the man, and man but dross to thee.

Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich;

And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

The literary critic Helen Vendler has asked “Why did Herbert feel moved to write Avarice? ... and in sonnet form?” Avarice is one of the poems that make up Herbert’s one book of English poetry, “The Temple” (he also wrote in Latin and Greek) and he is noted for combining “the intellectual and the spiritual, the humble and the divine, to create some of the most moving devotional poetry in the English language”.

Here is the second Herbert poem ..

The Elixir

      Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.

         Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossesed,
         And give it his perfection.

         A man that looks on glass,
         On it may stay his eye;
Or it he pleaseth, through it pass,
         And then the heav'n espy.

         All may of Thee partake:
         Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—"for Thy sake"—
         Will not grow bright and clean.

         A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th' action fine.

         This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.

Finally, some initial thoughts of mine prompted by (although not necessarily answering) Helen Vendler’s questions:

The first poem (Avarice), which might be called Claiming the Earth, concerns the false gold that like all possessions can end up possessing the possesser. It’s concerns are everything that has “the stamp of man” or limited, self-preoccupied ego.

The second poem (The Elixir), which might be called Creating (or Contributing to) Heaven, provides (using a Christian sensibility - “For Thy Sake”) an alchemical key for turning the earth-bound base materials of human preoccupations into the true (and free of claim) gold of service.

I think these two poems are like twins - The Elixir providing the positive “and yet” (or volta; turning point; point of potential movement leading to resolution) to the hardened world set out in the Avarice sonnet. (It may also be possible that Avarice has a particular grounding in Herbert's concern as a Wiltshire parish priest with the adverse effects resulting from the agricultural enclosure movement in that area during his time).

And finally-finally, showing the current concern of the Church for the economic and financial realms ...
A link to the St Paul’s Institute website advertising events where a debate continues on how Good People, Good Money and Good Banks may serve the Common Good ...
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Brian Chance

Joined: 09 Nov 2008
Posts: 115
Location: Croydon Surrey U.K.

PostPosted: Sun Apr 14, 2013 4:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Reading this is a refreshing and uplifting experience, just as I was about to write another rigmarole about money. We maltreat money terribly. It is the most wonderful servant, ready and willing to give instant help to all who wish to serve one another in their daily work. How could we manage without it? How may it be honoured and given the respect it deserves?

The secret of money is to allow it to work in the background as a recorder of the duties and obligations in relation to our daily needs. In a world that has lost the power to simply give and receive, money makes it possible to exchange our work for others with their work for us. It is a means of exchange. It is always secondary to the primary activity of exchanging that which is produced from the free gifts of the earth with that which is needed in order to enjoy the earth and its fullness.

The mistake comes from creating money for the purpose of claiming without providing anything in return. Whoever creates money has an absolute duty to ensure that it will only record an exchange of wealth in the form of goods and services. Either the recipient has created additional wealth and is therefore entitled to use the money to obtain wealth in exchange or there must be an implied obligation to produce wealth in future to be given in exchange for the new claim. There is always ample excess produced in this natural process, in the form of the rent of land, to provide for all those in real need.

This is a very simple test which would prevent the creation of most of the money currently being issued and save the suffering that must inevitably result.

We need the poets to open hearts and let in the light of truth.
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Peter Blumsom

Joined: 09 Mar 2007
Posts: 1138
Location: Wembley, London, UK

PostPosted: Tue Apr 16, 2013 9:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

From Gargantua and Pantegruel - Rabelais

In Paris, among the cook shops by the Petit Chatelet, a porter was standing in front of a roast-meat stall eating his bread in the steam from the meat, and finding it, thus flavoured, very tasty. The cook let this pass, but finally, after the porter had gobbled his last crust, he seized him by the collar and demanded payment for the steam from his roast. The porter answered that he had done no damage to the meat, had taken nothing of his, and was not his debtor in any way. The steam was escaping outside, and so, in any case, was being lost. No one in Paris had ever heard of the smoke from a roast being sold on the streets. The cook replied that it wasn’t his business to nourish porters on the steam from his meat, and swore that if he wasn’t paid he’d confiscate the porter’s pack-hooks. The porter drew his cudgel and prepared to defend himself. The altercation grew warm. Gaping Parisians assembled from all quarters to watch the quarrel and, fortunately, among them was Seigny John, the town fool.

When he saw him, the cook asked the porter, “Are you willing to accept the noble Seigny John’s decision in our dispute? “Yes, by the gooses blood, I am,” replied the porter.

Then, after hearing their arguments, Seigny John ordered the porter to take a piece of silver out of his belt; and the porter thrust an old coin of Philip’s reign in his hand. Seigny John took it and put it on his left shoulder, as if to feel if it were full weight. Then he rang it on the palm of his left hand, as if to see that it was a good alloy, next he held it up to his right eye, as if to make sure that it was well minted. All thi took place in complete silence on the part of the transfixed onlookers, while the cook watched with confidence, the porter in despair. Finally the fool rang the coin several times on the stall. Then with presidential majesty, grasping his bauble as if it were a sceptre, and pulling over his head his ape’s fur hood with its paper ears ridged like organ pipes, after two or three sound preliminary coughs he announced in a loud voice; “The court declares that the porter who ate his bread in the steam of the roast has civilly paid the cook with the chink of his money. The court orders that each shall retire to his eachery, without costs. The case is settled.”
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Richard Glover

Joined: 29 Sep 2008
Posts: 185
Location: Ealing, London, UK

PostPosted: Sun Apr 21, 2013 11:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Perhaps we need to reinstate the institution of town fool as well as encourage poets.

It is a small miracle that poetry and parable can convey highest principle and deepest understanding, yet with the simplest of words.
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