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George Herbert: Poem analysis » Affliction I » Synopsis of Affliction I

A complaint

George HerbertThis is one of Herbert's most autobiographical poems, written presumably before he became a clergyman, but at a point in his life when he was not sure what he was going to do. The poem is actually an account of his spiritual life up to the present; what is sometimes known as a testimony or a confession. The poem is entitled ‘Affliction' because, although his early experiences were joyful and believing in God came easily, his life has subsequently been overshadowed by suffering. To that extent, it could actually be called a complaint in which the poet sets out his troubles and tries to understand why God should have allowed these things to happen.

In the final stanza it seems that Herbert is tempted to turn away but the last line offers the possibility of a different conclusion (The word ‘let' could mean to ‘prevent' someone from doing something).

In Herbert's collection of his poetry, this is the first of no fewer than five poems entitled Affliction.

Investigating Affliction I
  • Who does Herbert see as responsible for his sufferings?
  • Look at the final stanza. Is it about rebellion or submission or both?
  • What is the poet's deepest desire?
Someone ordained as a priest, deacon or bishop to teach, conduct religious services, administer the sacraments and provide pastoral care within the Christian Church. Until recently, only men could be so ordained.
1. The part of a service of Christian worship where people say sorry to God for not living according to his will. 2. The practice of privately telling a priest of wrongdoing.
In literature, a sub-genre where the writer objects or protests about something.

WHEN first Thou didst entice to Thee my heart,
                I thought the service brave :
So many joys I writ down for my part,
                Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of naturall delights,
Augmented with Thy gracious benefits.

I lookèd on Thy furniture so fine,
                And made it fine to me ;
Thy glorious household stuff did me entwine,
                And 'tice me unto Thee.
Such stars I counted mine : both heaven and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served,
                Where joys my fellows were ?
Thus argued into hopes, my thoughts reserved
                No place for grief or fear ;
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fierceness seek Thy face :

At first thou gavest me milk and sweetnesses ;
                I had my wish and way :
My days were strewed with flowers and happiness :
                There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe.

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
                Sicknesses clave my bones,
Consuming agues dwell in every vein,
                And tune my breath to groans,
Sorrow was all my soul ; I scarce believed,
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 than I.
Thus, thin and lean, without a fence or friend,
I was blown through with every storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
                The way that takes the town,
Thou didst betray me to a lingering 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 threatened oft the siege to raise,
                Not simpering all mine age,
Thou often didst with academic praise
                Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill, till I came near ;
I could nor go away, nor persevere.

Yet, lest perchance I should too happy be
                In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, Thou throwest me
                Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth Thy power cross-bias me, not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
                None of my books will show :
I read, 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 household to me, and I should be just.

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