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...
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