There are no fewer than five poems titled Affliction in The Temple; obviously, suffering is a major theme for George Herbert. In this post I will reflect on the first, usually identified as Affliction (1).
You can find the poem here. The critics I have read all agree that it is Herbert’s most autobiographical poem. Some suggest that it was written around 1625, when he was in the process of making a major change in his life. King James VI & I and two of his patrons died, and any hopes of a career at court or in politics appeared to be at an end. He could have remained at King’s College, Cambridge, but it his positions there, especially as Public Orator of Cambridge University, were always means to the end of political preferment. He was thirty-two, wanted to be married, but had not yet made a suitable match. Herbert was restless, and this is reflected in the poem. While normally I would eschew biography in attempting to assess a poem, this is one of those cases where the exception is admitted.
There are eleven stanzas of six lines each, making sixty-six lines in total; this is a medium size poem for Herbert. The syllables in the lines of each stanza are 10.6.10.6.10.10, with the rhyme ABABCC. As is usual in English poetry, it s iambic pentameter.
The first three and 2/3rds stanzas, twenty-two lines, are unusually positive. Herbert here is reflecting on his youth and his simple affection for the divine and all that went with it.
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 in the fourth stanza it suddenly changes:
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 believ’d,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I liv’d.
The poem continues in this vein for twenty-two lines, He writes about illness from which he temporarily recovers, then he turns to an academic career, although he was perhaps more inclined to a career in London:
Whereas my birth and spirit rather tookThe way that takes the town;Thou didst betray me to a ling’ring book,And wrap me in a gown.
Frustrated from using his academic status as a launching platform for a political or diplomatic career, he nonetheless receives praise. But then illness returns:
Yet lest perchance I should too happy beIn my unhappiness,Turning my purge to food, thou throwest meInto more sicknesses.
The tone throughout is an indictment of God, a complaint by Herbert about what God has done with him. He writes as if he has been seduced by God, but his approach to the divine is pretty self-centered:
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.
Illness, the death of his friends and family, and the frustration of a career at court led to an end to the early, simple joy, but none of his self-concern. He felt less substantial (perhaps literally, because of tuberculosis), and perhaps subject to wild emotions.
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.
He is restless, and doesn’t know whether to stay or go:
I could not go away, nor persevere.
At line fifty-five, the beginning of the second to last stanza, his reflection turns from the past to the present:
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.
All of Herbert’s learning is unhelpful in knowing what to do. He expresses a wish to move from the dead paper to the living tree from which it was made, so that he would have some kind of use. His lonely solitude is expressed in a desire that “some bird would trust/her household to me”. One is reminded of Jonah and his grumpiness about the repentance of Ninevah and his joy over the shade given by a plant. The poet remembers the necessity of humility:
Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;In weakness must be stout;
Well, I will change the service, and go seekSome other master out.
This may be an indication in the poem that Herbert has decided to pursue ordination, thus taking God on as his new master, as opposed to the secular monarch, or the mistresses of rhetoric, rhyme, and reason.
The last two lines have generated much discussion. While the lines quoted above suggest a major change coming, it is still generated from a restlessness, the result of certain paths becoming blocked, of a sense of uselessness. It is not generated by what is the central underlying theme of poem, and the general theme of The Temple – the love of God, or God as love. The poem, then, has a quality of being unresolved, which is why the last line is so surprising. Instead of a loving commitment to the God of love the poet continues in his sharp, demanding tone, undermining the previous decision to find a new master:
Ah my dear God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.
He accuses God of having forgotten him, as though it were not Herbert resisting God, but God deliberately thwarting him. Herbert was happy when “I had my wish and way”, but he does not stop earlier to consider what God’s ways and wishes were for him. In modern language, Herbert considers his privilege as natural, and cannot see that the religion in which “Such stars I counted mine” was never his as a possession, but something calling to him. He was one of those who passed by in The Sacrifice and did not recognize the face of Christ calling to him.
“Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.” This last line is confusing, but I think its meaning can be discerned. Inge Leimberg argues that Herbert may be writing English but thinking Latin in the last two lines. As evidence she points out that “clean forgot” is a Latinism for oblitus sum, where proper English would be “I am clean forgotten”. The last line can be read, then, with the first “not” applying, as it might in Latin, to “love” and not “Let” — “Let me love-not thee”. The last line, paraphrased, might read: “Let me still be your servant not loving you, for I may be incapable of loving you.” It is the cry of a sinner who has hit rock bottom and knows that in response to the absolute love of God his own love is faulty and “cross-biased” or knotty.
The emergence of the word love, twice, after 65 lines, indicates the real theme of the poem – the asymmetry of the love of God and the love of the human being. In the poem the poet misunderstands the love of God, is distracted from its proper meaning by subsuming it to his career, and confused and restless when what he thought he was both born to and qualified for does not come about. The station along the way to great heights, academia, turns out to be a terminus, and he is perturbed and disgruntled. His illnesses weaken him, and he is aware of the shortness of life. He calls himself into question, recognizes he needs to make a change, but now knows just how hard that change will be. In a sense, this is a poem about the conversion of a Christian, about being transformed by the sufferings and becoming more Christ-like because of them.
This is then a second theme of the poem – the meaning of suffering. He has already meditated on the suffering of Christ, he has announced his own, and in the rest of The Temple he will continue to explore.
This poem resonates with me the more I read it. After almost thirty years of ordained life in the Anglican Church of Canada I was restless. There was a career path in that church, but after a few tastes at power and honours (I had been a diocesan archdeacon and executive officer) I felt in my body a real hesitation to “climb the ladder” of ecclesiastical preferment. I was in a place where I was appreciated and loved, and “I could not go away, nor persevere.” I had been quite ill at times, and while never as severe as Herbert’s consumption, it shook me. I knew I needed a change, but had no idea what it was to be. Well, I have now made a change – with my wife I have moved to the island of Crete, where I now serve a small congregation of non-Greek English-speakers, a chaplaincy within the Diocese in Europe, part of the Church of England. It’s about as peripheral as you can get in the Church of England. Now, I am no George Herbert — I am not an academic as he was, Gavalohori is not Bemerton, and I cannot write poetry. But I feel that I have never been so open to “the wish and way” of God, and never so content. Like Herbert, I want to know God’s love despite my own failure in loving.