Poetry Wednesday: Filthy Lucre

Tonight’s the night I find out if I’m rich beyond my dreams of avarice, so I thought I’d dig up some poems about money.

Turns out, poets generally don’t think much of it, though they seem to think about it a lot, which makes sense* considering a) how the world has worked since it was discovered that small shells and pieces of metal were easier to lug around the shops than a bag of pelts or an assortment of live chickens; and b) how often poetry doesn’t rake it in.

Some get kind of tetchy about it:


(George Herbert)

Money, thou bane of blisse, and source of wo,
Whence com’st thou, that thou art so fresh and fine?
I know thy parentage is base and low:
Man found thee poore and dirtie in a mine.

Surely thou didst so little contribute
To this great kingdome, which thou now hast got,
That he was fain, when thou wert destitute,
To digge 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 drosse to thee.

Man calleth thee his wealth, who made thee rich;
And while he digs out thee, falls in the ditch.

You might think it’s easy for George Herbert to say all this—he was born wealthy and became an Anglican priest after serving in parliament during the reign of James I, none of which appeared to hurt his tax bracket any.

But then there’s William Henry Davies, who was not born rich and preferred the life of a transient worker to steady employment—not counting his poetry and prose, which are essentially portable—if only to spite his family.**

(William Henry Davies)

When I had money, money, O!
I knew no joy till I went poor;
For many a false man as a friend
Came knocking all day at my door.
Then felt I like a child that holds
A trumpet that he must not blow
Because a man is dead; I dared
Not speak to let this false world know.
Much have I thought of life, and seen
How poor men’s hearts are ever light;
And how their wives do hum like bees
About their work from morn till night.
So, when I hear these poor ones laugh,
And see the rich ones coldly frown—
Poor men, think I, need not go up
So much as rich men should come down.
When I had money, money, O!
My many friends proved all untrue;
But now I have no money, O!
My friends are real, though very few.

Mary Jones has a slightly different perspective, as you might expect. Born to a family of modest means, her brother made a comfortable living as a chaplain at Christ Church in Oxford—but she formed friendships with the daughters of noble parishioners and was often invited to visit their homes. And, presumably, to hang out at the 18th Century version of the Mall:

Soliloquy on an Empty Purse
(Mary Jones, 1707–1778)

Alas, my Purse! how lean and low!
My silken Purse! what art thou now!
One I beheld—but stocks will fall—
When both thy ends had wherewithal.
When I within thy slender fence
My fortune placed, and confidence;
A poet’s fortune!—not immense:
Yet, mixed with keys, and coins among,
Chinked to the melody of song.

Canst thou forget, when, high in air,
I saw thee fluttering at a fair?
And took thee, destined to be sold,
My lawful Purse, to have and hold?
Yet used so oft to disembogue,
No prudence could thy fate prorogue.
Like wax thy silver melted down,
Touch but the brass, and lo! ’twas gone:
And gold would never with thee stay,
For gold had wings, and flew away.

Alas, my Purse! yet still be proud,
For see the Virtues round thee crowd!
See, in the room of paltry wealth,
Calm Temperance rise, the nurse of health;
And Self-Denial, slim and spare,
And Fortitude, with look severe;
And Abstinence, to leanness prone,
And Patience, worn to skin and bone:
Prudence and Foresight on thee wait,
And Poverty lies here in state!
Hopeless her spirits to recruit,
For every Virtue is a mute.

Well then, my Purse, thy Sabbaths keep;
Now thou art empty, I shall sleep.
No silver sounds shall thee molest,
Nor golden dreams disturb my breast.
Safe shall I walk with thee along,
Amidst temptations thick and strong;
Catched by the eye, no more shall stop
At Wildey’s toys, or Pinchbeck’s shop;
Nor cheapening Payne’s ungodly books,
Be drawn aside by pastry-cooks:
But fearless now we both may go
Where Ludgate’s mercers bow so low;
Beholding all with equal eye,
Nor moved at—“Madam, what d’ye buy?”

Away, far hence each worldly care!
Nor dun nor pick-purse shalt thou fear,
Nor flatterer base annoy my ear.
Snug shalt thou travel through the mob,
For who a poet’s purse will rob?
And softly sweet in garret high

Will I thy virtues magnify;
Outsoaring flatterers’ stinking breath,
And gently rhyming rats to death.

I love the last two verses of this, by the way—she has a sneaky sense of wry humor, does our Miss Jones.

My favorite poem about money, though, is Howard Nemerov’s “Money: An Introductory Lecture,” in which the narrator isn’t actually missing the point—but I don’t have permission to reprint it and since my chances of being sued are far greater than my chances at winning the lottery so I can afford lawyer’s fees and fines, you can click the link to take a look at it on Poetry Foundation, which is a great place to lose a couple hours,*** and free to boot.^

And now, I’m off to cross my fingers until the lottery numbers are drawn. . . but after all this, I’m not sure if I should be wishing to win.^^

*Except in Ezra Pound’s case, but that’s par for the course. I’m sure other people understand and admire his stuff, but it doesn’t do a thing for me. Feel free to argue your case, if you like—I haven’t read everything he did and I’m willing to listen.

**He won the argument—his book, Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (I know you’re sniggering—stop it, this was 1908), did very well.

***And relatively safe, too—if ever you decide to do a poetry search on Google using filthy lucre, I suggest you do so in private and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

^Especially if you go to your public library to look at it. Just sayin’.

^^Whew—there’s a blatant lie.  Bring it on.