A summary and analysis of ‘The Collar’, a classic George Herbert poem, by Dr Oliver Tearle
George Herbert (1593-1633) is regarded as one of the greatest devotional poets in all of English literature, and ‘The Collar’ is one of his best-loved poems. Here is the poem, with a short analysis of it.
I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the yeare onely lost to me?
Have I no bayes to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away; take heed:
I will abroad.
Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply’d, My Lord.
Right from the opening line, the tone of the poem is one of bluster. Herbert’s speaker seeks to reject belief in God, to cast off his ‘collar’ and be free. (The collar refers specifically to the ‘dog collar’ that denotes a Christian priest, with its connotations of ownership and restricted freedom, though it also suggests being bound or restricted more generally. Herbert, we should add, was a priest himself.) However, as he rants and raves, the speaker comes to realise that God appears to be calling him – and the speaker duly and dutifully replies, the implication being that he has recovered his faith and is happy to bear the ‘collar’ of faith again.
The form of the poem is wayward, even sprawling, with the line lengths varying to reflect the movement of the poet’s thoughts (if one were reading the poem aloud, a change of tempo, modulating between rapid delivery and slower or more considered recital, would add to the effect). This looser form also reflects the speaker’s desire to cast off the chains of belief and be free: can one ever be free? The poem’s form and its use of rhyme hint at what the speaker already knows, deep down, which is that there is no true freedom. ‘My lines and life are free’: ah, not so fast, the actual lines of the poem seem to say, with their regular rhyme and semi-regular rhythm. Any notion of true liberation is an illusion.
This is also borne out by the movement of the poem’s imagery, which seems wayward and arbitrary but which in fact follows a clear, logical sequence: thus ‘lines’ leads into ‘rode’ (the line that is the road), ‘store’ into ‘harvest’, ‘fruit’ into ‘wine’ (the great winepress of the wrath of God? or Christ’s blood?), ‘thorn’ into ‘crown’ (summoning Christ again, with his crown of thorns), ‘crown’ into ‘garlands’, ‘rope’ into ‘cable’, and so on. Even ‘forbears’ (i.e. refuses) finds itself solidified (via a pun on ‘bears’, as in to bear a burden) into ‘load’ (‘Deserves his load’).
The poem is an adept example of what we might call ‘eloquent inarticulacy’: that is, like the religious poetry of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the style reflects the stops and starts of the poet’s thoughts, the attempt to describe the ineffable, the ways in which religious awe (or a struggle with religious belief) leads to a breakdown of language. Thus words return as phantoms of themselves: ‘fears’ in ‘tie up thy fears’ returns faintly in ‘fierce’ four lines later, suggesting that the poet’s wilfulness stems from fear of God; ‘serve’ resurfaces in ‘Deserves’ in the next line, reinforcing the notion that only those who serve God deserve his mercy. The last rhyme on word and Lord finally restores clarity to the language of the poem: acknowledgement of God makes everything plain. Not only this, but the two words seem a natural fit: ‘the Word’ is another term in the New Testament for the Son of God – the Lord, in other words.
Discover more of Herbert’s poetry with probably the finest affordable edition of his work: The Complete English Poems (Penguin Classics). It contains a detailed introduction and very helpful notes on the poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: A statue of George Herbert on the West Front of Salisbury Cathedral, UK (author: Richard Avery, 2010), Wikimedia Commons.