Affliction by George Herbert


When 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 natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked 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 heav'n 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 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 fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav'st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw'd with flow'rs 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 cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev'ry 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 ev'ry 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 simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill, till I came where
I could not 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 I then 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.

George Herbert


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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