Themes and Meanings

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The recurrent topic of Herbert’s poems is not perfection but correction. Perfection is unreachable, but constant correction is one of the rules of religious life (and religious poetry) for Herbert. The speaker of “The Collar” is by no means wicked or reprehensible. He is, in fact, all too human, and his protest against the inevitable disappointments, restrictions, and pains of life is one with which most of the readers of this poem can sympathize and identify. Much to his credit, Herbert never denies the validity of the experiences described in “The Collar” or suggests that such feelings, however confused or disordered or angry, are unworthy of expression. Herbert knew that the Bible, especially the book of Psalms, one of his great spiritual and poetic models, dwells repeatedly on laments and complaints as radical as those in “The Collar.”

Alongside the Bible, perhaps there is also something of a different kind of social and religious ritualism here—the carnivalesque spirit. Carnival is a festival time of at least temporary release from the obligations and restraints of daily life, and one is not only freed but even encouraged to abuse, parody, or otherwise flout the figures of authority and “cold dispute[s]/ Of what is fit, and not” and grab for the physical pleasures at hand. Carnival functions not only as an individual and societal relief valve, letting off pressure that might otherwise build to intolerable levels, but also an important acknowledgment of the claims of the body and a person’s legitimate right to cry out against the strains of religion, law, and morality.

In works by William Shakespeare, according to C. L. Barber in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (1959), carnivalesque release leads to clarification, and this is precisely the pattern of “The Collar,” where Herbert allows the speaker full expression of his freedom as part of a rhythm of spiritual life that returns him to a deepened understanding of his obligations and his relationship to God. One of the ironies of the speaker’s protests throughout “The Collar” is that everything valuable that he seeks by rebellion is available through religious obedience. God surfaces dramatically at the end of the poem, and this is a surprising, wondrous moment. Yet there are signs of God subtly in evidence long before the last two lines: in the “board” of line 1 that the speaker strikes, which calls to mind the Communion table, and in the thorn, tears, blood, wine, and corn (by which Herbert meant grain or wheat) which the speaker mistakenly thinks are absent from the holy, moral life or are signs only of his pain and disappointment. Properly understood, the true desires of the speaker reinforce not his momentary rebellion from but his ineradicably close connection to God. As in so many of Herbert’s other poems, in “The Collar” one comes to God in a surprising way, in this case after exhausting oneself in an impatient struggle against a God who is overwhelmingly patient, kind, and understanding.

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