Volume 1, Number 2 (August 1995)

Affliction and Flight in Herbert's Poetry: A Note

P.G. Stanwood
University of British Columbia
Stanwood, P.G. "Affliction and Flight in Herbert's Poetry: A Note." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 5.1-11 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-2/stanherb.html>.
Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.2 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the Editor of EMLS.
  1. We all know the story, told by Izaak Walton, of Herbert's handing over his poetry to Nicholas Ferrar with the description that he would find there "a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul." These conflicts, so variously described, form the pervading theme of The Temple, and most particularly of that central and largest portion of the book called "The Church." Herbert's readers have long noticed the alternating moods of joy and grief, community and solitude, serenity and anger, happiness and desolation--the oppositions may fill an extended list. My wish is to contribute yet another mite to this discussion by suggesting a still further kind of response to the issue of "conflict."

  2. Herbert's conflicts naturally involve two sides: disorder belongs to one side, its management to the other. Thus when Herbert writes in "Easter-wings" that "Affliction shall advance the flight in me," he seems to identify movement with resistance, where each course depends upon the other. Now I should like to think of affliction as a general manifestation of conflict or contrariety, or, according to Thomas Wilson's definition in A Christian Dictionary (2nd ed., 1616), "Any trouble, greefe or evill whatsoever, that hapneth either to soule or body, name, goods, or estate, for correction of sinne, or for triall." Out of this affliction, flight is born in a kind of inevitable combination; for Herbert defines affliction in terms of divine providence, that is, afflictions are a form of providence, the design by which man comes to know God, and himself in God. So affliction and flight--or conflict and resolution--are not two movements but one only. The reciprocity about which Herbert familiarly writes means giving and receiving as a single action.[1]

  3. To speak of such unity in the face of so much evident diversity offers a kind of theological challenge, to see the same thing in different yet identical terms. Herbert's "Man," I think, is the "centering" poem of The Temple as it is of "The Church," where all sights focus steadily and comfortably in a single place. It is not a poem about affliction at all, but rather that state of perfect composure which is achieved when affliction ends and man realizes his pivotal place in the order of creation:

  4. We catch Herbert, as so often, in a conversation or in an activity. Here the first line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, and it establishes also the pattern which will not change: the six line stanza is easily divided into two parts; it grows suddenly from 3 to 5 syllables, then shrinks to 4 syllables. The second half of the stanza repeats this pattern in reverse, thus mirroring the first half--4 to 5 to 3. "Man" is designed to show the unending circle enjoyed by creation. Thus each stanza is a whole in two parts, and the total poem of nine stanzas teaches us spherical mathematics; for the first four stanzas are one hemisphere, the fifth stanza a fixed center, and the final four stanzas are another hemisphere. "Man is all symmetrie" (line 14), Herbert says; and this poem is designed to prove that idea.

  5. The central stanza 5 of "Man" brings together the winds of earth and heaven which comfort us and support "our cupboard of food, / Or cabinet of pleasure" (lines 29-30). Man's terrestrial habitation is the subject of stanzas 1-4, his celestial home of stanzas 6-9. This bilateral structure is further emphasized by the outer correspondences, that is, stanza 1 is answered by stanza 9 (and the reverse): "What house more stately" is a brave palace for the servants of God who maintain the building of his creation. Likewise, stanzas 2 and 8 are joined by theme and diction: "For Man is ev'ry thing" (line 7) who seeks to know that he is "one world, and hath / Another to attend him" (lines 47-48). In stanza 3, man's "proportions" have their correspondence in the ordered world where all things are "neat" (line 42). Stanzas 4 and 6, finally, complete another, inner circle, with the one describing man's eyes that "dismount the highest starre" (line 21), the other comfortably declaring that "The starres have us to bed" (line 31). Thus there is in "Man" one action that moves outward--of microcosmic man in the world--and a second and simultaneous action that moves inward, an action of God's creative urgency. With every earthly image, there is a corresponding and heavenly one; and with every ascending of man to God, there is a concurrent descending of God to man. The next poem of "The Church" which immediately follows "Man," underscoring its theme, is "Antiphon (II)." Here the two choirs praising God, of angels and men, are declared at the end to be one, as if their song must confirm "the God of love, / Here below, / And here above." In these poems we see the appropriate linking of earthly and heavenly realms in the unafflicted and well accommodated soul; and in them is the ideal expression and consummation of Herbert's struggles.

  6. But "Affliction (V)" soon follows, the last of the poems so-called, all of which, incidentally, appear within the first half of Herbert's volume. This fifth affliction poem is a comment on the means of salvation. "Affliction (V)," we see at once, begins in a way parallel to "Man": "My God, I read this day"--not heard, or discovered in observed experience, but read in scriptures. The reading about Paradise, the fall from Eden, and the Deluge leads to interpretive reflection on the nature of our experience and God's design upon it. The pleasure in which we first lived on land was inadequate for ensuring our joy; but the "floting Ark" offered an anchor amidst the raging tempests. And the unassailable sign of God's covenant of grace with his unmistakable providence gleamed with the rainbow: "Affliction then is ours." The conclusion is to be learned from reading; but it is one that has been tested in other ways, for we may reach back to "Man" and to the earlier affliction poem that precedes it. In "Affliction (IV)," "the sunne scatters by his light / All the rebellions of the night" (lines 23-24).

  7. Let us now turn back to the first of the affliction poems, in the early part of "The Church": "Affliction (I)" closely follows "Easter-wings," only "H. Baptisme (I) and (II)," "Nature," and "Sinne (I)" anticipating it. "When first thou didst entice to thee my heart," Herbert begins, "I thought the service brave." Pleasures and comfort were his daily joy, his "wages in a world of mirth" (line 12). But then "Consuming agues" descended upon his body, and his spirit "was entangled in the world of strife." The poem ends in resignation but also in the sense that love cannot be love without affliction, the container of hope and of delight:

    The theme of "Affliction (I)" echoes across "The Church," being remembered, for example, in "The Glance," almost at the end of the book, whose opening is a response to the earlier poem:

    The glance is that of Love's eye, which yet shall be "full-ey'd," and "look us out of pain" (lines 20-21). The glance, though brief, is powerful and transforming--the antidote to affliction, and a medicine "Passing all cordials," a momentary revelation of providential design.

  8. "Miserie" is really an "affliction" poem, but differently named. Like "Affliction (I)" and its allies, "Miserie" generally condemns man for his waywardness and his resistance to God's generosity. Mankind is unable through inherent sinfulness to approach God: "How shall infection / Presume on thy perfection?" (lines 35-36) Or "Man cannot serve thee; let him go, / And serve the swine" (lines 43-44). The despondent mood is very far from the satisfaction of "The starres have us to bed," yet Herbert really is complaining here of his own unpredictable misery, which need not presuppose a universal sadness. How could he suffer such pain? Misery is the friend of providence, after all, and if man (or myself) were "a garden in a Paradise" now spoiled through sin, then that affliction allows for further flight. This idea is implicit in "Miserie," as it is in so many of the poems, especially on "affliction"; but we appeal again to "Man" as the paradigm and apotheosis of mankind's-- and Herbert's--fruitful embracing of all experience. "Miserie" also looks across "The Church" in search of companions, and one that it easily finds is "The Pulley." Man possesses "a glasse of blessings standing by" which dispose him toward the world's riches; but "rest" remains at the bottom of God's treasure, and that gift may not be conferred. Thus "with repining restlessness," man may wearily seek out God: the apparent absence or lack of one good results in the formation of greater goodness. Misery, therefore, possesses a pulley that helps man's connection with God by drawing the two together.

  9. While Herbert may often depict mankind as wretched, he does so in order to demonstrate his own need for repair; yet the means of reconstruction or revival simply wait to be invoked or merely recalled to mind. There are times of anguish, of darkness, and of mysterious loneliness: "Sighs and Grones," with its tormented refrain, ends in the real dark night of the soul, with "My God, relieve me." Has God forgotten man, or this man? Or has one's perception become dimmed through so much crying? "Deniall," which stands two poems before "Sighs and Grones" (the interruptions are "Christmas" and "Ungratefulnesse"), gives a partial answer. The title is ambivalent: the poet may feel that his prayers receive no answer and are thus denied, or he may be implicating himself, as the one who is in fact denying God:

    Not seeming to have heard his petitions, God is charged yet again to come, and to "cheer and tune my heartlesse breast" (line 26). The mending of Herbert's distress is easily managed, however, as the final lines demonstrate through their well tuned "correctness"; "they and my minde"--God's favors and my requests--"may chime, / And mend my ryme." So the metrical line recovers the lost or wanting order through its propriety, a contentedness that lives within every "denial."

  10. The metrical correction of "Deniall" signals its close as well as its resolution in ways that look forward to "The Collar," which appears much later in Herbert's "Church." As Joseph Summers observed, and others have affirmed, this poem does have a "stanzaic norm," but it is not established until the submission of the rebel in the final quatrain. "Until the final four lines . . . ," writes Summers, "the disorder of the poem provides a constant implicit criticism, and with the final lines we recognize that 'The Collar' is a narrative in past tense--the message for the present concerns the necessity of order."[3] "I struck the board, and cry'd, No more. / I will abroad" is the message of the opening, but the conclusion is in a different key:

    The voice of "The Collar" that calls the poet from despair sounds from the beginning, but he hears it only when his ears--and heart--are ready. The experience is being remembered, but also put forward not only in present time but in a future perfect tense where memory is being forever reenacted. The seemingly ragged verse, nowhere better emphasized than in the forlorn "All wasted?", becomes regular and confident, even as the faint spirit of "Deniall" had hung "Like a nipt blossome," yet at last (or always) is restoring and restored.[4] Order, composure, and quiet all rest within the midst of the fears and feeble spirit of a "sigh-blown age" that "raving" brings forth. "Affliction," then, may be represented by metrical disorder-in-order, as we plainly recognize in these two poems; but it is also contained, wherever we have seen tempests in "The Church," in the still small voice after the earthquake and fire (1 Kings 19:12), or in the whirlwind (Job 38:1), as if the Lord's answer to Job might also be the same answer to this present sufferer: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?"

  11. I began by describing Herbert's "Man," a poem not of affliction, but of finely balanced accommodation, where the worlds both heavenly and celestial rest harmoniously within mankind's competence. This poem reveals the ideal circumstances of man's life in God, and God's in man, where affliction and flight meet in one pattern: "Nothing we see, but means our good, / As our delight, or as our treasure." Thus I was able to call "Man" the "centering" poem of "The Church," indeed, of the whole of The Temple because of its unity of design and fulfillment of ambition. The unspoken term in "Man" that describes such binding is, of course, "providence," which does later become the explicit subject of the second longest poem of "The Church," 152 lines in 38 quatrains-- only "The Sacrifice" near the opening is longer than "Providence." "O sacred Providence," Herbert begins, "Of all the creatures both in sea and land / Onely to Man thou hast made known thy wayes." Once more Herbert affirms, as he has done before in "Man," the central and mediating role of mankind in creation. But the difference now comes from the additional information about the great scheme of which man is the featured and willing, though tentative, player. Here in "Providence" Herbert explains and illustrates the storehouse in which man enjoys such abundance, in which all things cooperate and move designedly and purposefully "from end to end / Strongly and sweetly" toward God. This long poem declares that "Man is the worlds high Priest" who presents the sacrifice for all, even offering himself and his own afflictions to the "most sacred Spirit" of providence. The poem of "Providence" corroborates and completes "Man," and providence resolves "sinnes stealing pace and theft," accepts every piercing arrow, and advances all flight. This poem naturally occupies a crucial position in Herbert's "Church," appearing near the center of the whole work; from this place we can look back on numerous afflictions and, with hope, look forward to understanding their meaning. Every "hymn" or poetic song, says Herbert at the close of "Providence," "thy fame / Extolleth many wayes, yet this one more."


1. Herbert is generally very sensitive to the etymology of words. Here he must have felt the force of the Latin afflictum (affligere), to throw down, the source of the early English aflight (aflyght) and afflict (OED). Perhaps Herbert saw a "flight" in the derivation of affliction.
2. Herbert's poetry is quoted from The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941, rept. 1959). "Man" appears on pp. 90-92.
3. See George Herbert: His Religion and Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1954), 92.
4. The version of the poem in the Bodleian MS Tanner 307 particularly emphasizes this raggedness. See the transcription by Mario Di Cesare in his edition of The Temple (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1995).
I assume that "collar" and "caller" are phonetically similar enough in Herbert's dialect to provide a pun. The words are, of course, visually so similar that G. P. V. Akrigg maintains that Herbert might originally have entitled the poem "The Caller," which is properly descriptive of its action (see "George Herbert's 'Caller,'" Notes and Queries 199 [1954]: 17).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

Return to EMLS 1.2 Table of Contents.

[RGS; August 22, 1995.]