The Poem

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“The Collar” is George Herbert’s most extensive and detailed poem of rebellion. 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. Much like John Donne’s energetic complaints to God in several of his Holy Sonnets, “The Collar” gives full expression to the speaker’s resentment of the pain and rigor of leading a life that is moral and holy. Only after these complaints are freely, almost hysterically voiced is the speaker taught how quickly they can be banished by a patient God who ultimately gives more than he asks.

The poem begins with a dramatic statement of refusal—“I struck the board, and cried, No more”—and the following lines give examples of the kind of life that the speaker wants to leave behind. He is a person of ambition and desire, yet everything in life seems to conspire to frustrate or torment him. His life is one of “sighs” and “tears,” a situation he finds particularly distressing because he can readily imagine the joys and glories, the wine, fruit, and flowers, that are withheld from him.

The process of describing his past failure to seize the available pleasures of life makes him more determined to change his ways immediately and exchange his tears for the pursuit of “double pleasures.” Like a libertine, he suggests that inhibitions and moral laws are only a “rope of sands” once a person decides not to be bound by them. Instead of being blind to the forbidden pleasures of life, he will now serve only his needs and desires. Enraptured by his own enthusiasm, even the death’s-head, the traditional reminder of mortality and the nearness of judgment, is no longer intimidating and will certainly not be part of his luggage as he prepares to go abroad. He is confident that all of his fears can be neatly bundled up and left behind, and he attempts to wind up his argument with what sounds like a proverb celebrating his new creed of practical selfishness: “He that forbears/ To suit and serve his need,/ Deserves his load.”

This is not, however, the true finale of his argument, which is provided by the intervention of a holy voice, a device used in several other key poems by Herbert. All the ravings of the speaker are answered by one gentle word, “Child,” an almost miraculous reminder that not only is the speaker always overheard by God, but, more important, he is always protected, instructed, and accepted. This is the way the world of rebellion ends, not with a bang but with a whisper, and when the speaker replies “My Lord,” he acknowledges not only that his rebelliousness is at an end but that devotion to such a Lord is not painful servitude but joyful freedom. In a curious way, the story of this poem is thus foretold by the multiple meanings hinted at by the title: “The Collar” suggests a restrictive collar that the speaker wants to slip and the angry “choler” to which he gives voice throughout most of the lines; yet even in the depths of his anger and rebelliousness, the speaker is a “caller,” and God is always ready to answer.

Forms and Devices

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One of the most interesting aspects of “The Collar” is the way the form of the poem helps to convey not only the dramatic rebelliousness of the speaker but also the concluding resolution. The speaker’s anger and nervousness are underscored in several ways. His speech pattern...

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is halting and constantly interrupted. Many of the statements are short, and the frequent punctuation in the lines gives them a clipped, staccato sound, adding to the impression of uneasiness. Any sense that this is the speech of a confident and determined man is also undermined by the fact that much of it takes the form of questions. These are meant to be rhetorical questions, but still they suggest that the speaker is plagued with doubts.

At first glance, the overall structure of “The Collar” seems to mirror the state of mind of the speaker. The line lengths alternate in an apparently irregular pattern, and the rhyme scheme is difficult to assess. As a result, the structure of the poem may be taken as an embodiment of the rebelliousness of the man who is in the process of swearing off all laws and restrictions. “My lines and life are free,” he says, and the irregular lines of the poem signify his first step toward a life of pleasurable transgression. From another perspective, the form of the poem seems not so much free as chaotic, thus subtly indicating that a person who repudiates the legal and moral restrictions of life abandons the basic principles of order and thereby begins a descent into incoherence, the necessary by-product of rebelliousness.

The structure of “The Collar,” however, is neither completely free nor chaotic, but extremely subtle, discernible only after careful and patient analysis. Beneath the superficial disorder, or developing progressively through it, is an orderly pattern that climaxes in the last four lines of the poem. This is best seen in the rhyme scheme. As Joseph H. Summers points out in George Herbert: His Religion and Art (1954), every line in “The Collar” finds a rhyme somewhere, but through most of the poem there are many off-rhymes, and because rhymes do not occur at predictable, regular intervals, they sometimes undermine rather than create a sense of closure. Near the end, the rhyming lines begin to occur closer and closer, but the speaker’s last assertion that he is tying up his fears is still belied by the irregular off-rhymes (abroad/load, fears/forbears). Only in the last four lines do the rhymes become regular (alternating abab) and purposeful: The designation of the speaker as “wild” is replaced by the new name given to him, “Child,” and his every “word” of rebelliousness gives way to “Lord,” the divine word capable of redeeming human anger, weakness, and folly.