Commentary on Affliction I


Affliction I divides up naturally according to the stages in the poet's life. The first four stanzas deal with his early spiritual experiences. He uses the traditional image of entering God's service. Everything seemed to be going marvellously for him: there was the natural exuberance of youth together with real excitement in serving God:

both heaven and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth

A dark period

However, at the end of the fourth stanza there is a transition to something darker. He became ‘a party unawares for woe'. The next two stanzas spell this out:

  • The first source of sorrow was ill-health,
  • The second was losing friends through death.

He lost direction in life and also protection (‘fence'). Perhaps some of these friends had influence and could have helped him get on in life.

A reluctant academic

Stanzas 7 and 8 talk of his career not developing as he would have wished. He would have preferred a career in London, perhaps at the Stuart court, as John Donne also wanted. Instead, he remained at Cambridge University, as an academic. For many people, that would have been wonderful, but not for Herbert. From time to time he was encouraged by academic success which made it difficult to continue his argument with God, but his life was still not as he wished.

I could not go away, nor persevere

Help me!

Finally, he became ill again and really had something to complain about (stanza 9). Which brings him to the present: he doesn't know what he is to do and feels completely useless. In a fit of pique, he declares he'll serve someone else: but it is an empty gesture. He doesn't really want to turn his back on God. So, in the end, all he can do is offer up a prayer to be able to love God no matter what his circumstances may be.

Investigating Affliction I
  • Read through Affliction I.
  • What phrases does Herbert use in the poem to suggest that much of his earlier devotion to God was conditional?
  • How has his response changed?
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