The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

“Affliction” (I) is a lyric poem of eleven six-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme is ababcc. Lines 1, 3, 5, and 6 are generally iambic pentameter, with lines 2 and 4 using iambic trimeter. The poem is part of a collection entitled The Temple. George Herbert, a priest in a country parsonage, is said to have given the manuscript to a friend as he (Herbert) lay near death. The message accompanying the manuscript called the work “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master, in whose service I have now found perfect freedom.” Whether Herbert did indeed speak these words or they were put into his mouth by a devoted biographer, they well describe the movement in the collection of poems and effectively introduce the reader to “Affliction.” Called “Affliction” (I) because there are four other poems in The Temple with the same title, the poem relates the speaker’s personal journey in the spiritual life. The speaker tells readers that, captivated early by the beauty of serving God, he responded with great eagerness and dedication. The first three stanzas are exuberant, unrealistic. The speaker finds joy in God’s service and a certain payback in the satisfaction he derives from his efforts to live in a holy manner. Serving God, “the King,” is sufficient. His spirituality is sincere but superficial and self-seeking.

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The fourth stanza introduces a shift: “But with my yeares sorrow did twist and grow.” Suddenly the spiritual life, formerly a source of deep peace, becomes painful and difficult to bear. The speaker experiences even physical discomfort: “My flesh began unto my soul in pain.” The poem does not indicate the cause of the depression but suggests that God simply removes himself from the speaker’s consciousness.

The letdown is predictable. The poem continues its description of the spiritual and physical pain in which the speaker lives, without hope or joy. Searching for some meaning in life, he turns to the life of the mind and becomes an academic, studying at a university. Here, “academick praise” sustains him for a time and gives him the joy he sought. Knowing on some level that this respite is also temporary, he nevertheless pursues this course until illness again overtakes him. The last two stanzas show the speaker in distress, in sadness, in “affliction,” but turned toward God, patient in his distress and willing to endure God’s will for him, however difficult that might be. He cries to God: “Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me/ None of my books will show.” As the poem finishes he displays an act of faith and love: “Ah my deare God! Though I am clean forgot,/ Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.”

Although it is possible that this poem reflects an actual struggle experienced by Herbert regarding his priesthood, it is more probable that the poem describes a general inner struggle to be faithful to God’s designs and plans. The speaker is more concerned with the why of his actions—his motives—than with the what, or the literal decisions.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

“Affliction” (I) is a fine example of Herbert’s writing. As do most of his poems, it uses the first person throughout, giving a reader the sense that the spiritual experience is actually taking place. The poem reads like a cross between a journal entry and a biblical psalm, reviewing the speaker’s spiritual life and coming to a conclusion that accepts God’s actions in his life.

The affliction of the title works on several levels. The speaker early sees God as afflicting him with suffering and discouragement. He eventually realizes, however, that the real afflictions are those of the world: self-seeking, vanity, and earthly pleasure.

Herbert is considered a writer of the Metaphysical school, of which his contemporary John Donne was the originator and remains its most famous example. Like Donne, Herbert uses ordinary language, the rhythms of conversation, explosive outbursts, a deeply personal approach to God, and daring figures of speech. Describing his first religious fervor, he says, “There was no month but May.” He also exaggerates for effect: “consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,/ And tune my breath to grones.” Herbert’s vocabulary, though some of it may seem stilted to the modern reader, is in fact conversational, even colloquial at times. “Affliction” is not a formal prayer so much as a dialogue with God.

Like Donne, Herbert uses a formal structure, keeping to his iambic rhythms and firm rhyme scheme. The intense struggles of the spiritual life are played against this careful structure so that the reader perceives both order and chaos simultaneously. Similarly, the speaker is both disordered in his efforts to run away from God and supported by God’s care for him.

Schooled in classical rhetoric, Herbert combines a conversational tone with elegant figures. The last line of the poem, “Let me not love thee if I love thee not,” is a chiasmas. This term means “cross,” and the placement of “love,” “thee,” “thee,” and “love” makes an x, or cross, when the poem is diagrammed. A key influence on Herbert was the Psalms, with their frequent cries to God for mercy, deliverance, and salvation. Like many of the Psalms, “Affliction” uses past tense to review the speaker’s actions up to the present moment, moving then to the present tense as the speaker describes his current spiritual state.

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