Selected Poem - 'Affliction (I)'

As a young man George Herbert was clearly very bright. Elected to a senior post at Cambridge University at the age of just 26, he seemed to set for a brilliant career. But his health deteriorated.  Three of his brothers died in the space of five years, and then his eldest sister died. He seems to have become disillusioned with academic life. While we cannot put an exact date this poem, it could well have been written in his early thirties. Described by one critic as “one of Herbert’s greatest autobiographical lyrics”, it is a reflection on his life and his relationship with God.

'Affliction (I)'

When first thou didst entice to thee my heart,
I thought the service brave:
So many joyes I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of naturall delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious houshold-stuffe did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such starres I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Payd me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served,
Where joyes my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thoughts reserved
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fiercenesse seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My dayes were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no moneth but May.
But with my yeares sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a partie unawares of wo.

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to grones.
Sorrow was all my soul; I scarce beleeved,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use then I.
Thus thinne and lean without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with ev’ry storm and winde.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a lingring book,
And wrap me in a gown
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatned oft the siege to raise,
Not simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academick praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetned pill, till I came where
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happie be
In my unhappinesse,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth my power crosse-bias me, not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my wayes taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I reade, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her houshold to me, and I should be just.

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weaknesse must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

Commentary

The first three and a half stanzas celebrate George Herbert’s success as a young man. At 16 he had won a scholarship to Cambridge. He gained his BA at 20 and was placed second out of 193 graduates that year. He became a Fellow of Trinity College at 22. He was a serious and devout Christian, but he was also ambitious, and his ambition was to become Orator of the University, a high profile position from which people often went on to senior positions in public life. At 26 he achieved this ambition. As a Christian he felt he was being blessed by God and he was enjoying worldly success ('There was no moneth but May').

Yet in hindsight he questions this. He feels God was enticing him. He is aware he is 'sudden' – impetuous – and that he 'caught at' - grabbed - what was being offered to him.

And then his mood changes - in stanza 5 (and later, in stanza 9), he complains about his 'sicknesses'. Herbert suffered from a waak constitution for much of his life, and it seems that at this time his health deteriorated. Perhaps the years living in the damp atmosphere of the Cambridgeshire fens was taking its toll.

The sixth stanza expresses the pain he felt at the death of people close to him - 'my friends die'. The use of 'friends' to refer to members of one’s family was not unusual in Herbert’s time, and two of his brothers, William and Richard, had been killed in the war in the Low Countries . His brother Charles, also an academic, at New College, Oxford, had died in 1617. Then his eldest sister Margaret Vaughan died, leaving her three daughters without a parent, the youngest only eight. These deaths left him depressed ('My mirth and edge was lost'), and feeling vulnerable and isolated.

 

It seems that university life which he had previously enjoyed had turned sour. In stanza 7 he says he feels he is more suited to life in London than in Cambridge, and in the next stanza he describes how he felt angry with God and wanted to get out of the situation ('raise the siege'), but the 'Academick praise' he received melted his anger. He now feels this praise was a 'sweetened pill'.

All the way through these stanzas he is expressing his feelings of resentment towards God, holding God responsible for all that he is suffering - 'thou took’st away my life', 'Thou did’st betray me', 'thou throwest me / Into more sicknesses”. The whole poem has echoes of Jeremiah’s cry of pain and protest in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 20:7-18). Jeremiah too complains 'O Lord, thou hast deceived me' (v 7). (A modern translation reads 'you have enticed me' - NRSV).

In the tenth stanza the tone of the poem becomes more reflective. Herbert is thinking about his present situation and how he feels now. His mood is one of resignation, with feelings of regret.

In the final stanza his feelings change abruptly. First he thinks he must be 'meek', that God has put him in this situation and he must accept it. Then he thinks he must be 'stout' – brave, determined. He will give up serving God and go and try to find another master to serve. Then he realises he simply could not do that. God is 'my deare God' – the first note of affection towards God in the whole poem. And in the final line, for the first time in the poem, he speaks about love – twice. Love is the key. This last line is ambiguous. It is not at all clear what it means, and this seems to reflect his own confused feelings. But however confused he is, he knows that the essential thing is loving God.

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