Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 538 words.)