“Affliction I” is one of 17th-century English poet George Herbert’s most memorable and loved poems. Herbert was a Welsh poet and priest. His single collection of poems, known as The Temple, was published in 1633 after his early death at the age of 39. "Affliction I" is the first of five poems with the same title.
Herbert wrote devotional poetry, meaning poetry that focuses on religious themes. He was a devout man who spent the last years of his life running a small country church. During his lifetime, Herbert never published his poetry. Shortly before his death, he sent copies of his poems to a friend, telling him to print them if they were useful or burn them instead. Fortunately, Herbert’s poems were printed. Since that time, Herbert’s poetry has been a favorite with all sorts of readers. Twentieth-century poets like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop all expressed admiration for Herbert’s poetry. Equal parts serious and witty, self-assured and questioning, Herbert's poetry has appealed to people from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds.
The theme of "Affliction I" is the relationship between humans and God. The first-person speaker describes his changing mental and physical state as he tries to get closer to God. When the speaker first decides to devote himself to serving God, he expects to be rewarded. He thinks that life will be an eternal springtime. In the second part of the poem, the speaker begins to face sickness. His friends die off and he feels lonely. This is not what he was expecting, so the speaker begins to question God. He asks why God wants him to suffer. Unable to find relief, the speaker then tries to submit himself to God’s will, but just when he’s getting used to unhappiness, something worse happens. Finally, the speaker gives up on wanting to feel good or bad. Instead, he just wants to be useful.
In the final stanza, it is still unclear how much spiritual progress the speaker has made on this journey. On the one hand, he has matured enough to learn that he can’t avoid sickness and sadness. On the other hand, he still has moments where he speaks to God in an accusatory tone. The poem ends with the speaker affirming his desire to love God while also expressing his doubts about whether or not he will be successful.
“Affliction” means misery, distress, or illness. The speaker of this poem is clearly experiencing all of these things. The reader gets an uncensored view of his constantly-changing thoughts and bad health. While the speaker of the poem is unable to reach spiritual consistency, the form of the poem is similarly caught between consistency and change. The poem is made up of 11 tightly structured sestains (stanzas of six lines). However, the stanzas are heterometric (meaning they have different meters). The first four lines of each stanza alternate between long (iambic pentameter) and short (iambic trimeter) lines. This gives the poem a sing-songy feel that lightens up the otherwise-heavy subject matter. The rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter that concludes each line give the feeling of a strong ending to each stanza.
Taking into consideration George Herbert's life, his struggle with bad health, and his early death, some scholars have seen "Affliction" as an autobiographical piece of work. However, the mental conflict and physical pains that the speaker of the poem conveys have relevance far beyond just the author's life.