The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 589 words.)