George Herbert

The Collar

A nicely formatted text of the poem

  I struck the board and cried, "No more;
        I will abroad!
  What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
  Loose as the wind, as large as store.
        Shall I be still in suit?
  Have I no harvest but a thorn
  To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
        Sure there was wine
  Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
  Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
                All wasted?
  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 petty 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 death's-head there; tie up thy fears.
        He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
        Deserves his load."
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
        At every word,
  Methought I heard one calling, Child!
        And I replied, My Lord.

The poem is a complaint voiced by a soul chafing against the constraints that bind it. Impatient with the human condition, the speaker boldly resolves to break free. "My lines and life are free, free as the road,/ Loose as the wind, as large as store" he insists (4, 5). But the accompanying gesture, "I struck the board and cried, 'No more!'" (1), strikes us as overly dramatic, possibly boastful. The reader recognizes the tone of these lines as hyperbole, and suspects that the speaker knows he exaggerates. The aspect of the human condition he is impatient with is, perhaps, the very state of being a creature, and the resulting need to recognize one's dependence and to accept one's need to worship and to serve one's master: namely, God. I'm saying this because Herbert wrote a number of religious poems; but there is textual evidence as well, since the final line of the poem is the speaker's ready response to the Master's call: "Methought I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied, My Lord. " If we were uncertain before, we now recognize that the whole poem has been a "blowing off" of steam.

Herbert develops four kinds of images in the poem: images of restraints, such as collars, cages, cable, rope; images of the harvest, such as wine, corn, and cordial fruit; and images of being in service to a lord. The very title of the poem, "The Collar," suggests something stiff and restrictive, but not harmful, like a noose or shackles; an article of clothing a man wears when he must be at his best. "Collar" is also the neck piece we strap around dogs' necks for purposes of controlling them,; of keeping them out of trouble. "Collar" connotes the white band worn by the clergy, and perhaps it is the role of priest the poem alludes to. Late in life (if anything in a forty-year lifespan can be considered to be "late"), Herbert took holy orders and therefore wore the clerical collar. This collar symbolizes the priest's role as servant. The speaker chafes at being "in suit" (6), and once again the image has at least a double meaning, representing the clerical suit, but also the attendance required of a vassal at his lord's court. A third meaning of "suit" is also possible: the act of pressing one's claim in legal proceedings. Isn't that what Herbert would say all men must do before God?

The image pattern of methods of restraint is dropped after line 6, but picked up again in line 21: "Forsake thy cage, / Thy rope of sands." The word "cage" suggests a contraption for animals; once again, the purpose is not to harm the creature, but merely to restrict movement, which can be a good thing, can even prevent the creature from getting hurt by its impetuosity and curiosity about what lies beyond the confines. Still, we always feel a little sorry for an animal penned up in a cage. And when a human being is in a cage, we call it "jail" and use it for punishment. The cage of the poem is not a prison; if the speaker can "forsake" it, then he can get out. His confinement seems to contain an element of choice. "[R]opes of sand" are something else. Ropes are not chosen, and "sand" describes the way they feel on the skin, the discomfort of being chafed by them when one struggles to get them off. The line is set off by itself and ends with a comma, so that the reader must "see" the words as a unit and "hear" them as a complete unit of sense. But in lines 23-26, we realize the fuller meaning which Herbert intended for this image: "Which petty 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." The whole image of the ropes represents a turn in thought. Service to any master, divine or otherwise, makes us sometimes feel restive. But the speaker is also enslaved by "petty thoughts," and the reader wonders if perhaps the speaker's tirade is an example of such thoughts. Such thoughts are indeed true shackles, and not the disciplinary kind of restraint which "collar" or even "cage" is. Having come almost to a realization of this, he backs away, and concludes his argument with himself, saying: "tie up thy fears" (29). Take all these ropes, cables, restraints and use them to quiet conscience or the fear of consequences.

Implicit in this imagery of restraints is a suggestion of the speaker as being in an animalistic state. This is an example of what Kenner calls an "unstated image," around which the details of these passages cohere. If this animalistic condition isn't clear earlier in the poem, it is almost explicit in line 33: "But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild/ At every word." The speaker is getting himself all worked up; he is unreasoning, like an animal, or perhaps a madman. Even the text, with so many monosyllabic lines seems to bark: "What? shall I ever sigh and pine?/ My lines and life are free, free as the road,/ Loose as the wind, as large as store", etc. The reader cannot help but feel the restraints are perhaps appropriate.

Another important image pattern in the poem is that of the harvest. The clergy, like Christ's twelve disciples, are workers in the vineyard, threshers of the harvest. The speaker, however, feels his only harvest has been a thorn that has made him bleed (7,8). His "sighs" and "tears" (11,12) have made him ruin the fruits of his labors. Perhaps Herbert means that, when done in the wrong spirit, service is fruitless; self-pity cancels out the good. The speaker mourns for "bays to crown" the year, for "flowers [and] garlands gay" (14, 15), emblems of personal rewards, accomplishments, and pleasures. When, earlier in the poem, he mentions "My lines" as being "free" (4), he may be referring to his poetry. Perhaps he wishes for greater recognition of a worldly sort for his talents. He wonders if he's given up too much, let many of life's rewards pass him by.

As stated earlier, one turn in the poem begins at line 22, when the ropes of sand are found to be petty thoughts, rather than service to God. But a second turn occurs near the end of the poem, when the speaker leaves off his tirade long enough to hear "one calling, Child!" We are immediately aware of two things: first, that the plaintive note in the speaker is silenced, the restiveness is passed; and second, that no master calls a mere servant "child." Herbert clearly means for us to be surprised that the master is a divine one (He didn't realize that the only poem sure to be anthologized everywhere would be "Easter Wings," thus tipping us off to his religious leanings). The effect of this set-up is, perhaps, to evoke in the reader an identification with the whole situation, a recognition that we've all been there, whether our lives are modeled to conform with religious ideals, or mere humanist ones. We sometimes chafe at the restraints imposed by our ideals, but can just as quickly be called back to them.

Kenner says that the purpose of a poetic image is to "enlarge the significance" of the original "thing" (38), and that "the test of an image is not its originality but the illumination of thought and emotion it provides" (50). The images in Herbert's poem are quite apt. Only once in the poem does the language become obscure, in lines 17-20: "Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,/ And thou has hands./ recover all thy sigh-blown age/ On double pleasure." It seems the speaker is admonishing his heart to make up for lost time. But does a heart have hands? And what is meant by "sigh-blown age"? Coombes writes that an image should never "take attention away from the objects they are supposed to illuminate and make more vivid to our mind and senses" (49). These lines in Herbert's poem seem to do just that: to call attention to themselves. They are forced, and thus detract from the poem.

For the most part, however, imagery in "The Collar" is effective and vivid, examples of the kind of images that add to the strength and complexity of the whole work.

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