George Herbert wrote five “Affliction” poems, all contained in his collection The Temple. The first of the series, while not essentially autobiographical, did grow from Herbert’s life and experiences. While the poem begins with positive aspects of the speaker’s life, that same life quickly dissolves into the chaos caused by illness and the loss of friends. Specific to Herbert’s experience is the reference to university life as well as that of the clergy. The poem (1633) consists of 11 six-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ababcc.
The persona begins by recalling “When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,” referring to an initial “service brave” to God. He recalls enormous “joys,” drawn from his own “stock of natural delights, / Augmented with thy gracious benefits.” He continues to discuss the benefit he derived from “thy furniture so fine,” meaning all the trappings of a life publicly dedicated to service. The speaker felt the “glorious household-stuff . . . entwine,” with the verb entwine connoting, despite the upbeat tone, a trap, like that of a spider’s web. Still, the speaker earned his “wages in a world of mirth.” As the third stanza opens, the persona asks the rhetorical question “What pleasures could I want, whose King I served / Where joys my fellows were,” meaning he lived constantly with joy and lacked nothing. Herbert makes clear that his speaker confused service to God with that to an earthly king, complete with royal trappings. However, his statements become an argument of sorts, as he claims he did not realize the responsibility that accompanied the rewards. Because all of the joy left “No place for grief or fear,” when it did arrive he was caught unaware. The fourth stanza makes clear that the “milk and sweetnesses” and the satisfaction of his every “wish and way” caused him to live as if no month other than May, a time of new life and promise, existed. But as he aged, his “years sorrow did twist and grow, / And made a party unawares for woe.”
When that woe arrived, it was in the form of fl eshly pain, and the speaker notes that “sicknesses cleave my bones; / Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,” and even his breath turns to groans. Sorrow became “all my soul” to the point that he could hardly believe himself alive, “Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.” Although his health returned, God metaphorically took his life, as his friends died. He declares, “My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife / Was of more use than I.” Herbert’s persona begins to understand that all the while he thought he had the power to choose, his actions have been undercut by a cruel deity. He accuses God directly, claiming, “Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book, / And wrap me in a gown,” where the book refers to his education and the gown to both the academic and religious communities. He also references “his birth,” suggesting he was born to privilege, as was Herbert, a fact that should have afforded him some power.
In the ninth stanza Herbert employs a technique characteristic of metaphysical poets and poetry, the use of contraries, as the speaker says,
Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sickness.
He follows in the next stanza by wondering, “what thou wilt do with me,” and fi nds no answers in his books. He goes so far as to wish himself a tree, which at least birds could trust, “and I should be just.” While the suggestion contains some hint at humor, it also signals desperation. Herbert does not conclude on an optimistic note. His speaker can only say that he “must be meek,” and in that meekness he “must be stout.” He even considers seeking a new master. However, he concludes with a contradiction that nevertheless indicates he would like to remain with his present Lord: “Ah, my dear God! though I am clean forgot, / Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.”
As a result of his experiences the speaker first suffers rebellion but in the end shows humility. He seems to recognize not only his personal inadequacy, but also the inadequacy of his language, particularly figurative language, to express the proper relationship with God. The speaker remains frustrated, a state proper for a mere human in the presence of his Lord.