restricted access "In all a weak disabled thing": Herbert's Ill-health and its Poetic Treatments
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"In all a weak disabled thing":
Herbert's Ill-health and its Poetic Treatments

The surviving evidence about the nature of George Herbert's illness is scant and often unreliable. But at the very least a degree of consensus can be found among the various sources that record Herbert's deteriorating health. Herbert's extant letters, his biographer Walton, and friends, Nicholas Ferrar and Arthur Woodnoth, confirm each other in establishing a broad medical history, although of course Walton is the only source for eleven of the nineteen of Herbert's letters that survive. Not only is the evidence scarce, but also, the various shreds recording Herbert's health problems are seldom presented all together. That, therefore, will be my first task here. After examining the available evidence, and cross referencing its claims with various seventeenth-century medical works, and with Herbert's poetry, I will turn to the poetry in earnest, arguing that a good deal of Herbert's poetic work, and in particular the "Affliction" poems, present a dynamic response to a crisis of the self (exacerbated, perhaps even occasioned, by illness) which reference to Herbert's medical history can help illuminate.

It is agreed that Herbert first reports suffering from ague during his first year at Cambridge, 1609. In the New Year of 1609/10 he wrote a letter to his mother, a fragment of which Walton included in the 1670 edition of his Life. Herbert writes, "But I fear the heat of my late Ague hath dryed up those springs, by which Scholars say, the Muses use to take up their habitations."1 Sarah E. Skwire has investigated Herbert's ague, providing useful contextual information. Sydenham's treatise on "Epidemic Diseases," she says, gives an indication of the character and severity of Herbert's condition. Accounting for a particularly bad epidemic of agues in 1678, Sydenham describes "chills and shivers, followed by heat, and closing in sweats, ended, for awhile, in a complete apyrexy, only attacking the patient after a stated interval." Treated with bed rest and cordials, says Sydenham, most patients [End Page 1] recovered from such episodes within three or four days. But, that was not an end of it: "Afterwards, they so far assumed a severity foreign to their nature, that, instead of an inter-mission, there was only a re-mission. From this they went on to the type of continued fever, and at length affected the brain, and proved mortal to many."2 Skwire also goes on to investigate ague's pathology in modern medicine and microbiology, and, although her arguments help establish the severity of Herbert's disease, they need necessarily be approached with a measure of caution and a reminder about the difficulties inherent in applying modern medical definitions to seventeenth-century cases.

In 1618, by which time he had been appointed sublector quartae classis at Trinity College, Herbert wrote to his stepfather, Sir John Danvers, to ask for money to buy the books he needed to continue his study of divinity. Preempting his friends' response to the news of his persisting in his studies, Herbert wrote, "But perhaps they will say, you are too sickly, you must not study too hard," going on to acknowledge, "it is true (God knows) I am weak" (p. 364). His poor health is one of the foundations of his argument:

You know I was sick last Vacation, neither am I yet recovered, so that I am fain ever and anon, to buy somewhat tending towards my health; for infirmities are both painful and costly. Now this Lent I am forbid utterly to eat any Fish, so that I am fain to dyet in my Chamber at mine own cost; for in our publick Halls, you know, is nothing but Fish and Whit-meats: Out of Lent also, twice a Week, on Fridayes and Saturdayes, I must do so, which yet sometimes I fast. Sometimes also I ride to Newmarket, and there lie a day or two for fresh Air; all which tend to avoiding of costlier matters, if I should fall absolutely sick: I protest and vow, I even study Thrift, and yet I am scarce able with much ado...