Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

“Affliction” (I) relates a classic part of the traditional spiritual journey. Descriptions of such journeys were particularly common in poetry of Herbert’s period, but they recur in almost every century. A good nineteenth century example is Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” Herbert’s religious training for his ordination as a priest had given him a great sensitivity to God’s actions in his life. The poem may be autobiographical, but it also mirrors the experience of countless others who aspire to a life of holiness.

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The early stanzas show the stage of a spiritual life common to beginners, those in an early fervor in which everything is joyful, grace-filled, even easy. It is a traditional spiritual high point, and it is followed, not surprisingly, by a massive letdown in which the speaker finds the spiritual life not only difficult but also meaningless and distasteful. This state is also traditional, even predictable, in the spiritual life. The movement is from consolation to desolation, from first fervor to letdown. Countless believers have experienced this passage, each believing that he or she is the only one encountering these difficulties.

When the speaker seeks solace or refuge in the academic life, he follows a common path: He substitutes another good for the difficult and often unrewarding good of serving God. Here he falls prey to inappropriate motives, sustained by praise and the easy recognition of the university. Though the intellectual life is a good one, the temptation to intellectual pride is too great. Once again sickness overtakes him.

The end of the poem shows the speaker in another classic state: experiencing the “dark night of the soul.” Herbert does not use this phrase, but the great mystic John of the Cross, who coined the term, described it as helplessness, lack of consolation, and feelings of uselessness, joined with a conviction that God is somehow involved in the entire process. This helpless waiting is the first step toward true conversion of heart. The speaker confronts his self-seeking, even in good endeavors, and opens his life to God’s activity and power. (Some later writers have noted the similarity of this state to the first of the “twelve steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs.) Having handed over his power to God, the speaker can now grow in the spiritual life. This is not a one-time conversion of heart but a central part of the journey.

It should be noted that the speaker’s description of his turning from God’s service does not imply turning to a life of sin. Like most spiritual poems, “Affliction” shows a good person turning toward a deeper life. The speaker is not struggling with affirming the existence of God; rather, he is a devout believer who freely engages in conversation with God. The poem is written after the most intense struggle, not during it. The speaker is firm in his conviction that God does indeed care for him, however remote God may seem at times.

Another term for the stage that the poem depicts is the Purgative Way, the way of conversion and formation. It is followed by the Illuminative Way, in which God instructs the soul in the ways of holiness, and the Unitive Way, in which God and the soul are united in holiness.

Reading George Herbert requires an appreciation of both his theology and his seventeenth century approach to the spiritual life. It is not always an easy task for the modern reader, but the effort can be richly repaid as Herbert’s poems unfold. “Affliction” and many other poems in The Temple will stand with other literature of Herbert’s period as a rich record of struggle, sorrow, and surrender in the journey toward spiritual peace. The later poems in the volume depict the soul progressing in the spiritual life toward deep contemplation and joy in the presence of God.

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