Scattered throughout (though strategically placed) his collection of poems, Herbert gives us his five “Afflictions.” Five poems related to the complexities of knowing, loving, believing (and disbelieving) God. If Herbert’s poems are sometimes mistook as simple and unwavering piety, that is because they have not read the Afflictions (or several other of his poems as well). The point of them being scattered haphazardly throughout a complete and purposely shaped collection, seems to be that we are meant to imply that the religious life is not pure bliss, not ever increasing love and trust, but struggle, doubt and uncertainty. Who can but help argue and fight with God when they move beyond the “romantic” period? Those first years where every flower sings the praises of the God-who-is-near. No, says Herbert, this path leads to self doubt and frustration with a God who seems to not be near.
At first, says the first of his Afflictions, he has “so many joys;” he looked upon the Lord’s “furniture so fine, and made it fine to me.” Even the “stars” he “counted” his; “both heaven and earth.” Everything is glorious, Creation itself is shot though with the plainly seen glory of God. “At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetness.” Then for the first time in line 23 we hear our first “but.” “But with my years sorrow did twist and grow, and made a party unawares for woe.” Indeed God seems to pile more on top of more: “Yet lest perchance I should too happy be/in my unhappiness,/Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me/into more sickness” – emphasis mine.
God’s sweet joys have turned to bitterness in Herbert’s mouth. To where by the end, Herbert in total resignation pleads with God: “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” I have searched my books!, he says. But they will not “show.”
The irony for those who know should be apparent. The Reformation was supposed to be the rejection, not just of Papal authority; but of a clericalism which said that one only experienced God by way of the Priest. The institution stood between the Christian and their God. But now it was to be different. The Bible is in English. The Protestant is not under the Pope. Here they have the very words of God, no more middle-man to shuffle to and fro. And surely this is what Herbert finds so frustrating. He was supposed to have unfiltered access to God now. How is it now that he is so afflicted? He is telling himself that even though God troubles him he “must be meek.” Modern English might say “should be meek.” ‘I am being told I should be meek but also “stout.”’ ‘Even my own counsel is confused’ says Herbert. ‘I must be strong and meek?’ So in the last lines he determines something absolutely unthinkable to the poet of the first few stanzas. “I will change the service, and go seek/ Some other master out.” ‘If all I’m left with is doubt and abandonment, I’ll just leave!’
Yet immediate penitence finishes out the first Affliction. Having just determined to leave an absentee Lord, Herbert clarifies what he meant: “Ah my dear God! Though I am clean forgot,/Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.” In the depths of his pain, it is his persistent desire for God which shows (he hopes) that he is not “clean forgot.” How could he still love a God who does not exist? In the third Affliction he proclaims in the first lines “My heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!/By that I knew that thou wast in the grief”
The Afflictions are not over yet; in the second poem he moves on to focus on the Lords suffering. Perhaps, he says, if I focus on all my Lord has gone through, I will be able to cope. If “all men’s tears were let/Into one common sewer, sea, and brine;” They would not not even be able to discolor the bloody sweat of the Lord. But this is not good enough. In the third stanza he is brought back to his own grief. Indeed it is only God who is his grief! “Thou art my grief alone” Unwilling to say only this he instantly replies no, “All my delight, so all my smart” – emphasis mine
And so it continues for several more poems. The back and forth between Herbert and God. Though God never actually speaks. It is almost the dialogue in his head, the internal conflict. But in the fifth Affliction he finally comes to terms with the reality that on this side of “grace” there will be no reprieve. “Affliction then is ours” But Affliction, the poet resolves, is not the point; God uses both affliction and joy to turn the person continually to him. The person will need it through “every age.” But we know that God is there because he was there at first: “to make us thine: yet that we might not part,/As we at first did board with thee,/Now thou wouldst taste our misery” The misery of man is also God’s misery on account of God’s “boarding” the “Ark” with humanity (an oblique reference to the doctrine of the Incarnation)
What is interesting about these poems is that Herbert, a Reformed Protestant, ends up sounding an awful lot like Catholic mystics from the same period. Namely St. Terresa Avila and St. John of the Cross. To be too confident in our “knowledge” of God is to give into the temptation to reduce God to an intellectual object for our comprehension; in essense an “idol” of “ideas.” Herbert, with the mystics, insists that it is in the breaking of his constructs, the emptying of his mind, that God is able to show up as God is. Otherwise we risk (Herbert says) confusing our joy with God, equating good feelings with the Creator.
Herbert was an incredibly skillful poet, in many ways ahead of his time, and in others a Romantic; though a Romantic that resisted simple Romance which always carries with it the tendency to cliché. I highly recommend him to any poet interested in the use of formal poetry.
Williams, Rowan. “Anglican Identities.” Cowley, Cambridge Mass. 2003 “Inside Herbert’s Afflictions” 57-72
Herbert, George. “The Complete English Works.” –Everyman’s Library ed. Ann Pasternak Slater. New York/Toronto (1908,1974) 1995