The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)