Ballad of Worldly Wealth by Andrew Lang

Ballad of Worldly Wealth by Andrew Lang is a three stanza poem. Each stanza is made up of eight lines and they follow a continuous pattern. The rhyme scheme stays the same throughout the entire poem and even between stanzas, using the same rhyming endings throughout. The pattern is ABABBCBC and can be applied to each set of eight lines. 

 

Summary of Ballad of Worldly Wealth

“Ballad of Worldy Wealth” describes the way in which humankind perceives the power of money as well as its true worth and usefulness. 

The poem begins by walking the reader through all of the things that money is able to do. It allows one to purchase land without war and control the lives of merchants. Additionally, it is able to give men power over others: armies, women, children, any whom they see as inferior. Then finally, it allows one to gain position in the church. Without money, one is unable, supposedly, to rise as close to God as those who can afford to purchase a Cardinalship. 

Throughout this piece, the speaker punctuates the stanzas and uses of money by reminding the reader there are three things that money cannot buy, “Youth, and health, and Paradise.” 

 

Ballad of Worldly Wealth Analysis

First Stanza

Money taketh town and wall,

Fort and ramp without a blow;

Money moves the merchants all,

While the tides shall ebb and flow;

Money maketh Evil show

Like the Good, and Truth like lies:

These alone can ne’er bestow

Youth, and health, and Paradise.

Lang begins this poem with all encompassing statements about the power of money. 

Money is said to have the power to take “town and wall,” (1) as well as “fort and ramp” without a single “blow” (2). Money can do for humankind what violence always did in the past. This can be both a good and bad thing. Wars may be avoided by the exchange of money, or caused, when amounts are in contention. Money allows for the purchase and sale of land and infrastructure, sometimes without the consent of others involved. 

Additionally, staying on the theme of transactions, the speaker of this poem describes how “Money moves” merchants of all kinds (3). No matter what one is selling, buying, or reselling, there is always going to be the necessity of money. Money runs, rules and “moves” all those who seek to trade with it. 

It is at this point in the poem that the reader should be starting to understand that in this piece money is going to be referred to as something with ultimate control over all aspects of human life, especially those that might not first come to mind. 

The fourth lines of this poem separates the first half of this stanza from the second, and is relevant to both what comes before and after it. 

While the tides shall ebb and flow; (4)

This line could be placed after almost every line of this piece and remain contextually relevant. 

The poem continues, and the speaker begins to talk about the ephemeral power of money. It has the ability to make evil seem like good, and truth seem like lies. Greed for more can overpower humanity’s capacity for morality. The speaker concludes this stanza by saying that evil and lies can never “alone” bestow, 

Youth, and health, and Paradise. (8)

While all this occurs, the tides are still ebbing and flowing, the natural world is moving forward, free from the corruption money generates. 

 

Second Stanza

Money maketh festival,

Wine she buys, and beds can strow;

Round the necks of captains tall,

Money wins them chains to throw,

Marches soldiers to and fro,

Gaineth ladies with sweet eyes:

These alone can ne’er bestow

Youth, and health, and Paradise.

The second stanza maintains the pattern initiated in the first. The beginning of this set of eight lines starts with additional declarations about what money can accomplish. Money is able to, “…maketh festival, / Wine she buys…” (9-10). In this statement the speaker is conveying the idea money is capable of creating the illusion of happiness through the purchase of wine and the necessary elements of a “festival.”

 It is important to note at this point that money is referred to as a “she.” This “she” can be understood as the stereotypical conniving female character who does whatever it takes, no matter who gets hurts, to gain a foot up in the world.

 It is very common in writings of the Victorian era to find distain for women with power, and this is a prime example, if somewhat veiled. 

Money is also able to “strow” beds. “Strow,” is used in its archaic form, more commonly said as “strew” today. Simply, this line means that money can “strew” about “her” beds from, which one can assume, pleasure will be drawn. 

Money is also able to win for “captains tall,” (11) “chains to throw”(12). This idea of chains is representative of the power rich men have to assert dominance over others. Whether that “other” is a subordinate, a race or ethnicity that they feel is inferior, a wife, or a child. 

Additionally, money gives powerful men the ability to command others, to lead armies and decide who lives and dies. As well as, catch ladies with “sweet eyes” (14). Basically, money gives those with it access to everything one could want, it makes one almost God-like.

While money is able to do all of these things for humankind, it is incapable of “bestow[ing]” (15),

Youth, and health, and Paradise. (16)

 

Third Stanza

Money wins the priest his stall;

Money mitres buys, I trow,

Red hats for the Cardinal,

Abbeys for the novice low;

Money maketh sin as snow,

Place of penitence supplies:

These alone can ne’er bestow

Youth, and health, and Paradise

This stanza continues naming things that money is able to acquire. The first is, “…the priest his stall;” (17). Even appointments to an institution, such as the Catholic Church, are not above influence from those with wealth. By allowing money to influence spiritual appointments, it becomes the baseline. Only the worthy, or those with wealth, are able to get close to God. 

The second line stays on this same theme as the speaker states that money is also able to buy “mitres…I trow.” Mitre, or miter, refers to the pointed hat worn by bishops of the Catholic Church, another allusion to money buying closeness to God. The speaker uses the word, “trow” in these lines. This is an outdated way to say “think” or “believe.” 

This is the first time the speaker has used a first person pronoun. Lang made this decision for his speaker to make clear that while he (the speaker) is not there firsthand witnessing these hand outs of religious positions, he believes it is the case. 

Continuing on, money buys “red hats for the Cardinal” (19) and abbeys for the lowest “novice (20). 

The next few lines conclude the poem and show that not only does money buy status in the church, it also wipes away sins, making them “like snow,” (21) clean, clear, and pure. The sale and purchase of indulgences is the perfect examples of this practice. 

The third stanza concludes with the same two lines as the previous stanzas did, making absolutely clear that while man may say that purity can be bought, or heaven purchased, the speaker firmly disagrees.

The main theme of this piece acts as a warning: while it may seem as if money is the answer to all of life’s problems, physical and spiritual, there are many things it cannot do. 

 

About Andrew Lang 

Andrew Lang was born in Selkirk, Selkirkshire, Scotland in 1844. He was the eldest of eight children, and the landscape in which he grew up would serve as inspiration throughout his life. As a young man he was educated at St. Andrews University and later at Balliol College, Oxford.  

When Lang permanently moved to London at the age of 31 he had already found modest success as a poet and journalist. He wrote a number of columns, and worked as an editor for, among others, The Daily Post and Time magazine.

The Rainbow Fairy Books are the best known pieces of Lang’s writing, They spawned from his life long interest in mythology and folklore. The first of these books, The Blue Fairy Book, was published in 1889 to much acclaim. 

Throughout his life Lang experimented with novels, poetry, articles, and literary criticism. Today he is best known for his translations of Homer.

 Lang died in 1912 and is buried within the grounds of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. 

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2 Comments

  1. Shi March 26, 2019
    • mm Lee-James Bovey April 1, 2019

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