George Herbert wrote five "Affliction" poems, all contained in his collection The Temple. The first of the series, while not essentially autobiographical, did grow from Herbert's life and experiences. While the poem begins with positive aspects of the speaker's life, that same life quickly dissolves into the chaos caused by illness and the loss of friends. Specific to Herbert's experience is the reference to university life as well as that of the clergy. The poem consists of 11 six-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ababcc.
The persona begins by recalling "When first thou didst entice to thee my heart," referring to an initial "service brave" to God. He recalls enormous "joys," drawn from his own "stock of natural delights, / Augmented with thy gracious benefits." He continues to discuss the benefit he derived from "thy furniture so fine," meaning all the trappings of a life publicly dedicated to service. The speaker felt the "glorious household-stuff . . . entwine," with the verb entwine connoting, despite the upbeat tone, a trap, like that of a spider's web. Still, the speaker earned his "wages in a world of mirth." As the third stanza opens, the persona asks the rhetorical question "What pleasures could I want, whose King I served / Where joys my fellows were," meaning he lived constantly with joy and lacked nothing. Herbert makes clear that his speaker confused service to God with that to an earthly king, complete with royal trappings. However, his statements become an argument of sorts, as he claims he did not realize the responsibility that accompanied the rewards. Because all of the joy left "No place for grief or fear," when it did arrive he was caught unaware. The fourth stanza makes clear that the "milk and sweetnesses" and the satisfaction of his every "wish and way" caused him to live as if no month other than May, a time of new life and promise, existed. But as he aged, his "years sorrow did twist and grow, / And made a party unawares for woe."
When that woe arrived, it was in the form of fleshly pain, and the speaker notes that "sicknesses cleave my bones; / Consuming agues dwell in ev'ry vein," and even his breath turns to groans. Sorrow became "all my soul" to the point that he could hardly believe himself alive, "Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived." Although his health returned, God metaphorically took his life, as his friends died. He declares, "My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife / Was of more use than I." Herbert's persona begins to understand that all the while he thought he had the power to choose, his
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