The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

George Herbert includes five poems entitled “Affliction” in the first half of his collection of lyrics. Perhaps this is one way of emphasizing how difficult and yet important it is to understand the experience of affliction fully. These poems form a loosely linked sequence, and together they dramatize a variety of responses to suffering and propose several ways of connecting human with divine grief. “Affliction” (I) is perhaps the most well-known and successful of these poems, particularly because it seems to be deeply autobiographical, dramatizing what many critics interpret to be the pains and frustrations that inescapably plagued Herbert in both his secular and his devotional life. In some ways, though, “Affliction” (IV) is equally powerful: It narrates a life of pain and disappointment from the inside, focusing not on the steps of a persona’s career in the “world of strife,” as in “Affliction” (I), but on a nearly hallucinatory vision of one’s self being fragmented, tortured, and then miraculously reformed.

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The five six-line stanzas are addressed to God, but at the beginning of the poem, the speaker is so guilt-ridden and disoriented that he approaches God fearfully. “Broken in pieces,” he imagines God as a tormentor hunting him, and he seeks not help but oblivion. Twice he speaks of himself as a “wonder,” underscoring the fact that the “normal” perception of one’s place in the world—indeed, in the cosmos—has given way to a “tortured” sense of being stretched between heaven and earth.

The poem shifts rapidly from one image of distress to another. As in so many other poems by Herbert, one of the great afflictions of life is a heightened consciousness, and in stanza 2, the speaker is figuratively attacked by his thoughts, imagined as knives that wound body and soul alike. The self in extreme pain can only interpret experience in terms of that pain: Even the potentially promising image of a vessel watering flowers is part of a nightmarish vision of continual assault.

For the rest of the poem, the speaker’s distress is presented in terms of a violent rebellion that disrupts life on all levels: personal, political, and cosmic. Order, obedience, and control seem to have vanished, and everything seems dangerously unstable. Chaos is self-destructive, leading to the death of the rioting “attendants” and “elements” as well as the speaker, and it is also murderous, threatening even God, who is closely bound up in the life of the persona. The only hope is that God will intervene and scatter “All the rebellions of the night.”

It is only in the last stanza that the speaker can envision some “relief.” Through God’s powerful action, the rebellious forces of grief can be brought back to work to praise God and help rebuild the persona’s damaged self. The poem ends with a description of order restored and the self reintegrated, on the way to “reach heaven, and much more, thee.” This is, however, only a plea, and although the end of the poem is much more calm and assured than the beginning, the imagined security of the conclusion is not yet an accomplished fact.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

Herbert is a master at using poetic form to underscore his themes. At the beginning of “Affliction” (IV), the shape and sound of the lines embody the fragmentation and nervousness of the speaker. Iambic meter is Herbert’s basic unit here, but he varies it to add emphasis of different kinds. For example, he opens with a trochaic substitution—that is, the first word is accented on the first syllable rather than the second, as it would be in an iambic pattern. This not only dramatically accentuates the key word “Broken” but also disrupts the rhythm of the entire first line so that it is halting and jerky rather than smoothly flowing. A similar substitution in line 4 places an accentual stress on “Once,” and thereby heightens the rhetorical contrast between what he was previously—a “poor creature,” but presumably less miserable—and what he is “now”— a “wonder.” Other subtle touches make the first stanza even more irregular and unstable. Lines 1 and 4 each contain nine syllables instead of eight, the norm for the other stanzas, and since the last syllable in each is unaccented, they form a so-called “feminine” rhyme, a technique often used to weaken the closure usually conveyed by rhyme. Finally, by repeating the word “wonder,” Herbert adds a kind of eerie echo effect that underscores the speaker’s obsessive concentration on his pain.

By the last stanza, though, the form of the poem helps underscore the dramatic improvement in the speaker’s state of mind. The repeated words are not “wonder” and “wound,” as they are earlier, but “day by day,” conveying a new sense of patience and trust in time as allied with progress, not decay. Metrical substitutions accent words that are encouraging rather than frightening: “Labor,” for example, which situates the speaker in a world of “praise” rather than pain. Finally, the rhymes are strong and subtly reinforce the transformation of “grief” into “relief” and the restored intimacy of “me” and “thee.”

The state of mind of the speaker of “Affliction” (IV) is expressed not only by his speech patterns but also by the imagery that he uses. Through most of the poem, he seems to be ransacking his vocabulary to seize upon as many figures of pain and chaos as he can find: He is broken, hunted, forgotten, and tortured. Much of the energy of the poem comes from the rapid shifts among images and metaphors as he tries to give coherent representation to a self he feels is under attack, but ironically, what he brings to life in most of the poem is a picture of unruly “attendants” and “elements” that threaten to destroy the world. The crucial turn in “Affliction” (IV) comes when he shifts suddenly to a deeply felt plea to God and a description of God’s role in this “strife.” The comparison of God to a “sun” is commonplace but powerful, and the vision of the “light” dispersing “All the rebellions of the night” is infinitely refreshing to the troubled speaker. For all the implied militancy of this simile, Herbert is careful to end on a gentle note. The sun—and he presumably has Christ in mind as well, the “son” of God—tames and rebuilds rather than destroys. This is crucial because the rebellious powers are not so much inveterate and external enemies, but rather parts of the persona’s self—“My thoughts,” “my attendants.” He is consoled and redeemed by transforming affliction from a rebellious power into part of a process ending in praise of God.

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Themes