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GEORGE HERBERT - The Collar

THE POET

  • George Herbert   (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a Welsh born English poet,  orator  and  Anglican  priest.
  • He went to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but his scholarship attracted the attention of   King James.
  • Herbert served in parliament for two years.
  • After the death of King James and at the urging of a friend, Herbert's interest in ordained ministry was renewed.
  • In 1630, in his late thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took   holy orders  in the  Church of England, spending the rest of his life as a  rector  of a little parish near  Salisbury
  • Throughout his life he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favoured by the   metaphysical poets.
  • Herbert enjoyed playing the lute and writing poetry. He composed lines while riding or walking round his parish. Some of his poems he set to music, now lost.
  • All of Herbert's English surviving poems are   religious and some have been used as  hymns.
  • Suffering from poor health, Herbert died on 1st March, 1633of   tuberculosis,  only three years after taking holy orders and just short of his fortieth birthday.

THE POEM

The Title

  • The title is a play on words.
  • Most obviously a collar is something you put on an animal to restrain it, just as Herbert feels restrained by an unknown master.
  • Collars are also used as part of harness for animals pulling heavy loads. So it becomes symbolic of the heavy mental and spiritual load the poet is carrying.
  • The word sounds like another word ‘choler’, which is an old medical term for anger, or that which produces anger in the body, as in the word ‘choleric’.
  • The collar represents all externally enforced and internally reinforced restrictions on freedom.
  • The collar is both a sign of his office and a symbol his entrapment.
  • The collar mentioned in the title represents the clerical collar. In fact, Herbert himself wore the clerical collar as a rector.

The Poem

  • The poem begins with a dramatic declaration of the desire for freedom.
  • The questions in the third line suggest a bleak and unhappy future.
  • The rebellion is signified by three quick-fire similes of freedom, abandon and largesse.
  • The poem continues with the poet questioning his servitude.
  • The suffering endured and the future foreseen are compared to the suffering of Christ on the cross (“a thorn to let me blood”)
  • The poet acknowledges (“sure”) that there were happier times in the past with images that echo the earlier mention of store and harvest: wine and corn.
  • These images are cleverly developed to suggest the poet’s present unhappiness: the corn is drowned with tears and the wine dried with sighs.
  • There are further images of bays, garlands, flowers, significant in their absence from the poet’s current life.
  • The stark nature of the poet’s despair is emphasised in the two-word line: “All wasted?”
  • The poem then changes tone to develop one potential answer to that question.
  • It is possible to recover, the poem goes on to argue, all that has been lost by servitude and even to redouble the pleasures that have been renounced.
  • The poet urges himself to reject morality (“what is fit and not”) as the product of a cold dispute.
  • Using an elaborate metaphor of his “caged” life, he tells himself to forsake the “rope of sands”, the “good cable” which his “petty thoughts” have made.
  • He rebels again against the restriction of the “law” he has chosen to follow in being a priest.
  • He decides to pursue his own needs, rather than those of God.
  • The second line of the poem – “I will abroad” – is repeated in the twenty-eight line. This echoes and amplifies his sense of rebellion.
  • The rebellious monologue ends with the poet stating that he “deserves his load” unless he rebels conclusively.
  • He wishes to evade thoughts of death and of spiritual fears.
  • He sees himself as responsible for his own subjugated situation.
  • The tone changes suddenly in the concluding four lines when acceptance of God’s will overcomes what may now be seen as a childish rebellion.
  • At first the poet nearly loses control “I raved and grew more fierce and wild…” but the he hears the voice of God and he, and the poem, calms down.
  • God is presented as a father and the poet as a rebellious son determined to leave home.
  • After the chaotic patterns of the earlier sections, the rhyme and rhythm of the poem become regular in the last four lines to suggest resolution.
  • The poem ends with powerful simplicity.

POINTS TO PONDER

  • “The Collar” is a symbolic, religious poem.
  • It is also George Herbert’s most extensive and detailed poem of rebellion which begins with a dramatic suddenness.
  • The speaker is plainly a Christian priest.
  • Thirty-two of its thirty-six lines describe what the poem itself calls the ravings of a person growing “more fierce and wild” as he strains to release himself from the restrictive pressures that surround him. 
  • These thirty-two lines are one long monologue   (or soliloquy) framed by quotation marks.
  • The poet wants to be free from his human condition and of the duties that the collar represents.
  • George Herbert, whenever he used the name of Jesus Christ, always added "My Master." 
  • In this poem, Herbert describes the agony and conflict experienced by him as a priest. 
  • He seems to be in a conflict experiencing the two way pull between the secular life and the religious life of a priest.
  • The collar is both a sign of his office and a symbol his entrapment. 
  • Herbert was obviously contemplating abandoning his role as a priest, but he finally meets reality at the end of the poem and retains the Christian worldview by returning to God and crying "My Lord".
  • Question marks are used constantly in the poem. As the poet openly questions the direction of his life, this punctuation is appropriate.
  • The imagery used in the poem is a clever amalgamation of Biblical and secular images.
  • The increasing violence of the imagery reflects the violence in the poet’s mind as he follows his rebellious road.
  • The poem is in the iambic metre, but the lines are of varied length and there are no divisions into stanzas.
  • The irregular rhymes and rhythms of the poem reflect the confusion in the poet’s mind.
  • There is no regular pattern to the rhyming scheme.
  • There is, also, no regular pattern to the line lengths. Some have ten words; others have just two.
  • The apparent randomness of form serves a dual purpose: it accentuates the conversational tone as if the poet is really speaking these lines. The second effect of this randomness is to suggest the indiscipline of the rebellious spirit.
  • The poet’s journey from the search for self-satisfaction to ultimate compliance with God's bidding is one full of anger and outraged rebellion.
  • One of the main clusters of   imagery  has to do with fruit and harvest.The idea of fruitfulness is an obvious image of fulfillment in life. But Herbert combines this with images of freedom.
  • The   similes of ‘free as the road/ Loose as the wind’ bring a sense of open space as well as plenty waiting out there for him.
  • As the poet’s anger increases, his images become more violent.
  • Herbert outlines this voyage from resistance to submission with his clever, multi-faceted title and the seemingly formless form of the poem. He weaves these components together to create the speaker's pathway to a realization and acceptance of God's will.
  • There is tenderness in the last line when he realizes to whom he belongs.

COMMENTS

“…they are a picture of spiritual conflicts between God and my soul before I could subject my will to Jesus, my Master"
George Herbert on his poems

   "Herbert speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books". 
Richard Baxter

"Nothing can be more pure, manly, or unaffected…"
S. T. Coleridge on Herbert’s diction

“The great danger, for the poet who would write religious verse, is that of setting down what he would like to feel rather than be faithful to the expression of what he really feels. Of such pious insincerity Herbert is never guilty. ... What we can confidently believe is that every poem in the book is true to the poet's experience.”
T. S. Eliot

“Herbert is also a poet who thought deeply and perhaps perpetually of death and resignation.”
Robert Pinsky

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