George Herbert includes five poems entitled "Affliction" in the first half of his collection of lyrics. Perhaps this is one way of emphasizing how difficult and yet important it is to understand the experience of affliction fully. These poems form a loosely linked sequence, and together they dramatize a variety of responses to suffering and propose several ways of connecting human with divine grief. "Affliction" (I) is perhaps the most well-known and successful of these poems, particularly because it seems to be deeply autobiographical, dramatizing what many critics interpret to be the pains and frustrations that inescapably plagued Herbert in both his secular and his devotional life. In some ways, though, "Affliction" (IV) is equally powerful: It narrates a life of pain and disappointment from the inside, focusing not on the steps of a persona’s career in the "world of strife," as in "Affliction" (I), but on a nearly hallucinatory vision of one’s self being fragmented, tortured, and then miraculously reformed.
The five six-line stanzas are addressed to God, but at the beginning of the poem, the speaker is so guilt-ridden and disoriented that he approaches God fearfully. "Broken in pieces," he imagines God as a tormentor hunting him, and he seeks not help but oblivion. Twice he speaks of himself as a "wonder," underscoring the fact that the "normal" perception of one’s place in the world—indeed, in the cosmos—has given way to a "tortured" sense of being stretched between heaven and earth.
The poem shifts rapidly from one image of distress to another. As in so many other poems by Herbert, one of the great afflictions of life is a heightened consciousness, and in stanza 2, the speaker is figuratively attacked by his thoughts, imagined as knives that wound body and soul alike. The self in extreme pain can only interpret experience in terms of that pain: Even the potentially promising image of a vessel watering flowers is part of a nightmarish vision of continual assault.
For the rest of the poem, the speaker’s distress is presented in terms of a violent rebellion that disrupts life on all levels: personal, political, and cosmic. Order, obedience, and control seem to have vanished, and everything seems dangerously unstable. Chaos is self-destructive, leading to the death of the rioting "attendants" and "elements" as well as the speaker, and it is also murderous, threatening even God, who is closely bound up in the life of the persona. The only hope is that God will intervene and scatter "All the rebellions of the night."
It is only in the last stanza that the speaker can envision some "relief." Through God’s powerful action, the rebellious forces of grief can be brought back to work to praise God and help rebuild the persona’s damaged self. The poem ends with a description of order restored and the self reintegrated, on the way to "reach heaven, and much more, thee." This is, however, only a plea, and although the end of the poem is much more calm and assured than the beginning, the imagined security of the conclusion is not yet an accomplished fact.