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The Collar


George Herbert was born on April 3, 1593 at Montgomery Castle, the
fifth son of an eminent Welsh family. Herbert's religious beliefs
caused him to be an active opponent of the puritans and the Calvinists.
Herbert became the cannon of Lincoln Cathedral and in 1630 he took holy
orders. During the years Herbert spent at Bemerton he worked on a
collection of verses known as The Temple. Upon his death they
published the manuscript. The poem "The Collar" is a complaint voiced
by person embittered against the constraints that bind him. Impatient
with the human condition, the writer resolves to break free. "My lines
and life are free, free as the road, / Loose as the wind, as large as
store" he insists. The accompanying gesture, "I struck the board and
cried, 'No more!'" is a dramatic, and boastful act. The tone of these
lines is recognized as an exaggeration. The writer is impatient with
the need to recognize one's dependence and to accept one's need to
worship and serve God. The poem as a whole is about blowing off
steam. Herbert develops two quite vivid major images to build the
poem's theme. The images of restraints such as "collars / cages /
cable / rope"suggests something stiff and restrictive, but not harmful,
like a noose or shackles. The title of the poem, "The Collar," an
article of clothing a man wears when he must be at his best. The word
"Collar" also refers to the white band worn by the clergy, and it is
the role of priest the poem alludes to. This collar symbolizes the
priest's role as servant. The writer chafes at being "in suit." The
image has at least a double meaning. The word "suit" refers to the
clerical "suit" and connotatively to the attendance required of a
vassal at his lord's court. "Forsake thy cage, / Thy rope of sands."
The word "cage" suggests a contraption for animals. The purpose is not
to harm but merely to restrict movement, and keep from harm. This
prevents the creature from getting hurt by its impulses and curiosity
about what lies beyond the confines. This imagery of restraints
suggests the writer of being in an animalistic state. This animalistic
condition is clear when "as I raved and grew more fierce and wild/ At
every word." The writer is getting himself worked up. He is
unreasoning, like an animal. Even the text, 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." The feeling is that the
restraints are perhaps appropriate. Yet, this is not a jail, if the
writer can "forsake" it, then he can get out. His confinement contains
an element of choice. However, "Ropes of sand" is 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. "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." Then the fuller meaning that Herbert intended
for this image is realized. The whole image of the ropes represents a
turn in thought. Service to God, makes us sometimes feel strained.
The writer is also enslaved by "petty thoughts," the writer's tirade is
an example of such thoughts. Such thoughts are true shackles, and not
the disciplinary kind of restraint which "collar" or even "cage" is.
Another important image pattern in the poem is that of the harvest. The
clergy, are workers in the vineyard. The writer, however, feels his
only harvest has been a thorn that has made him bleed. His "sighs" and
"tears" have made him ruin the fruits of his labors. Herbert means
that, when done in the wrong spirit, service is fruitless; self-pity
cancels the good. The writer mourns for "bays to crown" the year, for
"flowers [and] garlands gay," emblems of personal rewards,
accomplishments, and pleasures. He wishes for greater recognition for
his talents. He wonders if he has given up too much, let many of life's
rewards pass him by. The turn in the poem occurs near the end, when
the writer leaves off his tirade in the immediate reply to the Master's
call: "Methought I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied, My
Lord." The distressed note in the writer is silenced and the
discontent is passed . The effect is to arouse an identification with
the whole situation in the reader, a recognition that we have 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.


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