The Value of Money: Herbert’s “Avarice”

Through Lent with George Herbert
Thursday after the Third Sunday of Lent


30 Shilling Coin of James I, third coinage, rose royal, mm. spur rowel (1619-1620).


Money, thou bane of bliss, & 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 transferr’d 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.

George Herbert was no stranger to the need for money. He was the sixth child of ten, and the second son, so he knew that he would have to make his own way in the world. His mother came from a wealthy family, landed gentry on the cusp of becoming aristocracy – his cousin was made Baron Newport, and his brother Richard Herbert was created Baron Herbert of Cherbury. His appointments at Cambridge, first as a don and later as Orator, ensured that he had an income, but when he ceased that work he was once again dependent on his wealthier relatives. He was ordained a deacon and so received small incomes from two church positions with minimal responsibilities, but between ill health and the end of his hoped-for career at the royal court, he would not have had anything sure. Only when he was ordained a priest and took on the living at Bemerton did he receive some sort of security. When he died he had no children, and his widow, Jane Danvers, had to leave the rectory at Bemerton, and some six years later married again, and had a child by her second husband. While not without resources, the second marriage was probably as welcome for its financial security as the companionship.

Avarice is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the inordinate desire of acquiring and hoarding wealth; greediness of gain, cupidity.” He is more than a little ambivalent about money in the sonnet above. He knows it to be a source of bliss, but also of woe. He contrasts its bright and shining appearance – Herbert’s knowledge of money would have been gold and silver coin – to the fact that it had to be dug out of the ground, and smelted. Human beings were too often considered of less value than money, and he understands that the value of gold and silver is given to it by human beings. While the law of supply and demand was not well understood, Herbert knows that the metal of coinage is valuable because humans make it so. This imputation of value by persons also gives rise to avarice, and so brings about the fall of many. Herbert would have known 1 Timothy 6:10

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

He also would have known this from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.24):

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

For Herbert the decision to enter parish ministry was a recognition that he would have to forgo the possibility of becoming wealthy by being employed at the royal court. While there was some security in the living at Bemerton, he and his family were living simply.

I, too, am ambivalent about money. I enjoy the freedom that comes with it, but I have little interest in being the kind of entrepreneur that sets up a business, or the sort of person who becomes wealthy through investment. It is not so much risk aversion as it is a complete disinterest in such things; turning a profit just does not turn my crank. I recognise the importance of this, and I am impressed when people do start businesses that serve real needs, employ dozens to thousands of people, and provides any number of social goods; I’m just not the sort that has any desire to do that kind of work. But some degree of wealth is helpful to achieve a few things – to raise children, to not be a burden on family or the state, and to be free to do something possibly useful, like taking on a half-time position at a church in Crete. I have been blessed with some funds from the inheritance from my parents, but I do not consider myself part of the 1% by any means; indeed, my current income is probably the lowest it has been in thirty years. However, I am blessed to be living here in Crete, figuring out how to serve God and my neighbour here. My hope and my prayer is that as time goes on I might learn to live with even less, and so be more generous, so that money has no power over me, and is merely a means to do things in the kingdom of God.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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2 Responses to The Value of Money: Herbert’s “Avarice”

  1. Pingback: An Advent Retreat with George Herbert | The Island Parson

  2. Pingback: Another Advent with Herbert: The Poems So Far | The Island Parson

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