Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

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“Affliction” (IV) is a meditation on the experience of human suffering and its role in one’s devotional life. Like many of the Psalms, to which Herbert alludes repeatedly throughout The Temple, this poem suggests that one of the key tasks in life is not to eradicate suffering—an impossibility—but to understand how it can deepen, not dissolve, one’s faith, and how it can be balanced by the deep joys of that faith. Herbert is one of the great poetic analysts of physical and spiritual pain, and “Affliction” (IV) acutely voices the thoughts of a person leading a life based on the premise “I suffer, therefore I am.” At its darkest moments, this poem shows that suffering leads to more suffering, but in its much more optimistic conclusion, it suggests that suffering is the preparation for a return to intimacy with God. Herbert’s other poems titled “Affliction” focus more directly on the way in which human suffering is linked to the far greater sacrificial suffering of Christ. This is implicit rather than explicit in “Affliction” (IV), where Herbert emphasizes not Christ’s agony but his ability to turn all “grief” to “relief.” Because of Christ’s power, manifested every day like the sun, human suffering is endurable and meaningful. The poem does not—and perhaps cannot—dramatize exactly how this works, but its presentation of the miracle of recovery is stirring: The opening plea to stay hidden from the Lord gives way to the concluding plea to grow ever closer to “heaven” and “thee.”

What is at stake in “Affliction” (IV) is not only the self but, the speaker would have the reader believe, the entire world. The first two stanzas are a meditation on personal suffering, but the next two stanzas suddenly introduce terms that turn the internal struggle into a microcosmic focal point of all the chaos and disorder of the world at large. Many of the writers of the early seventeenth century were painfully aware of the turbulence of their times and brooded over what seemed to be increasing social, religious, political, and even cosmic instability. John Donne’s comments on how “new philosophy” calls everything into doubt are well known, but Herbert’s poems also tend to picture a world in which (to use Donne’s words) all coherence is threatened. To use an even more compelling example, “Affliction” (IV) is as close as Herbert comes to William Shakespeare’s grim vision of life in King Lear (c. 1605-1606). Like Lear, Herbert’s speaker is bound upon a wheel of fire, stretched “Betwixt this world and that of grace,” and his mental distress is a mirror of an external world of strife, plots, rebellions, and the threat of nothingness. “Nothing” is a key word in King Lear; it is also a word Herbert places at almost the exact center of this poem.

If the world of “Affliction” (IV) temporarily pivots on nothingness, however, it does not end there. The miracle that does not happen in King Lear does happen—or is at least powerfully imagined—in Herbert’s poem. The true “wonder” is not, as the speaker first thinks, the way affliction tortures but, as he finally learns, how it elevates.