Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 648 words.)