Poem of the Day

Avarice by George Herbert

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 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.

I spent two weeks in on the Croatian island of Mljet, in a hermit-like seclusion, doing nothing but reading, walking, swimming and spending time with my husband. Ok, we did eat in the Polace harbourside restaurants most days, and our own home made meals consisted of tomatoes and local peppers, salami and goat cheese and beer, bought at the shop. So not not at all frugal, but the period of time had a clarity derived from its stripped down nature. It was a sort of mindlessness holiday. Which we needed because of two very different sadnesses we were carrying with us.

The water on the island (this is the eastern Adriatic) is clean and very clear, causing, on the coast a sharply delightful intake of breath, but in the calm sea-water lakes on the north west side of the island, it’s warm and shallow enough to encourage you to simply drift, floating for half an hour at a time. Something about this drift, in the aqua-green water, surrounded by forested hills and breathing the scent of hot pines,feels to me deeply restorative. And was perhaps felt also by Benedictine monks in the twelfth century, who came to build a now ruined monastery on the tiny islet now known as Santa Maria, set in extreme west of the larger of the two lakes. This place is mildly remote now, but then? I spent some time imagining the quiet of those Benedictine lives, and the power of their plainsong in the ringing acoustic space that is the church.

So then I came home, rested and looking forward to resuming my busy life, with a strong new year resolution feeling about keeping hold of the deep quiet I had enjoyed, of making a place for quiet downtime in my non-holiday life. And the next day, my MacBook Air having a glitchy problem to do with being totally out of memory, I made my way into the city centre, to visit the Applestore in Liverpool One. Was it too sudden a transition? The streets were full of people buying clothes, shouting at their small children, drinking. It looked like an animated Bosche painting and the soundtrack was a blurry cacophony of stupid broken noises. Outside a summertime pub drinkers smoked and their faces seemed monstrous, bulbous, huge-pored, red. Poor boys in black anoraks pushed through the crowds looking like trouble. Fat women wore revealing strapless sundresses. Everyone was obsessed with stuff. It is not good to feel so apart from one’s fellow creatures and I felt repulsion and then something like shame, because why shouldn’t Liverpool be going on just as it always does, just because I’ve been on holiday? I bought an external hard drive and fled. Oh, I did my shopping.

I hate not feeling part of the world. I want to be fond of my fellows. But this was too much, too sudden, too messy and too pointlessly buying. Everything seemed about getting stuff. I know I am part of it. I was in the Applestore like everyone else, getting and spending, as Wordsworth says, and laying waste my powers. I know we cannot all be transported to a rural idyll. I know this world is here to stay and that I want my money as much as the next man, more than some.

But I want more than this, too. I want my peace. I thought while I was away that one of the ways of getting some slow downtime would be to read a poem a day. So this morning – I’d forgotten about town almost as soon as I got back to my garden in West Kirby – I opened my Everyman George Herbert and looked for a poem I did not already know. This was it. I remembered my disgusted feeling. I thought of my own desire for stuff, things, new walking boots, a snorkel, music, a season ticket for Anfield, the Phil, eating out, new clothes…

I particularly like the lines,

Nay, thou hast got the face of man; for we
Have with our stamp and seal transferr’d our right :

Which gave me the strongest sense of having exchanged something of my self for money and stuff. And I like the use of pronouns in the poem – I , we , he… as if they are all pretty much the same – the ancient history of money and stuff, the current state of it… it’s a general human problem and mess, almost a species problem, caused by ‘man’ and over a very long time.

I read it and the question is – how can I live a good life in the world, this world of money and stuff, of shopping and getting, of not having and wanting, and not retire to a Benedictine or some other monastery?

Sunday morning. I spend £4 on going for a swim in West Kirby swimming baths. The water is nothing like the small salt lake on Mljet, but after 30 lengths I feel ok.