The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

The fourth...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.