‘The Collar’ by George Herbert is a thirty-six line poem about a speaker’s struggle for freedom. It was written by Herbert in 1633 while he struggled with his own religious beliefs. The poem does not conform to one particular rhyme scheme but jumps from half or slant rhymes to full end rhymes. There are a few moments that are more consistent in their patterns, such as the final four lines of the poem which rhyme abab. Herbert chose this pattern, or lack of pattern, to mimic the chaos of his speaker’s own thoughts.
The first element of this piece a reader should take note of is the title. If one understands a bit about Herbert’s religious background, the title takes on a second layer of meaning. The word “collar” has immediate connotations of submission and control but it also refers to the piece of clothing worn by a member of the clergy.
Summary of The Collar
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he will stand for his present life no longer. It is time for him to make a change and he intends to resurrect the parts of himself the lost in his youth. He will seek out real pleasures and no longer worry about what is right and wrong.
As the poem continues, the extent of his confinement is revealed. He has crafted a prison for himself out of his own belief. The ropes will no longer keep him and he will utilize his fears to his own benefit. He will be a stronger man.
The final lines bring the speaker back to his religious reality. The voice of God penetrates through his “rav[ing]” and calms his ardor. He will not do as he said he would; he has been taken back into the fold of the church.
Analysis of The Collar
Lines 1- 9
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?
In the first stanza of ‘The Collar’, the speaker shocks his reader by crying out, seemingly without provocation, that he has had enough. He says, ‘“No more.”’ He will not remain in his life any longer. The speaker will “abroad.” He asks in the following lines if it is necessary for him to “sigh and pine.” The speaker is becoming more and more sure that it is not his sole purpose in life to want something he cannot have. He is severely dissatisfied with the current direction of his life and is ready to make a change.
He sees himself as being able to live in “life” and write his “lines…free, free as the road.” There should be no restraints on what he is allowed to do or say. He sees a future in which is life is “Loose” and resembles the “wind.” He desires to live in a world as large as he wants it to be.
The following lines are used to ask if he must be “still in suit.” He wants to know if it is possible for him to change his life at this time, or if he is trapped in the world he has made around himself. The next phrase proposes one type of life he could be living, one he cannot escape from. In this scenario, he compares himself to a plant that produces no fruit, but only thorns on which he cuts himself. It is the blood he loses that he hopes to use to reinvigorate himself. Perhaps he can benefit from his own present suffering.
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?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
In the next set of lines, he tries to remember if there was a point in his life in which “there was wine.” It would have had to have been before his “sighs did dry it.” He thinks there is no way the suffering he is going through now has always been present in his life. There must’ve been days before in which one could find “corn” and “wine.” These days would be before his “tears did drown it.” To some extent, he feels as if his own emotional state is making his already bad situation worse.
The second half of the section is made up of a number of questions. He asks if there is any way for him to “crown” or save his year. He does not want it to be “lost to” him. The speaker searches for “flowers” or “garlands gay” which might be used to improve his remaining days.
Two short phrases follow; they inquire if the flowers have all been “blasted” or “wasted.” The final two lines clarify that no, they have not. In his “heart…there is fruit” still. With his hands, he plans to retrieve that fruit along with his happiness.
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.
The second half of ‘The Collar’ begins with the speaker asking a number of different things of himself. First, he wants to recover the pleasures of his past and leave behind his “cold dispute / Of what is fit and not.” He is done wasting time worrying about what is holy, proper, or good. These things will no longer interest him. It is his goal to leave behind his cage and “rope of sand.”
These means of confinement that the speaker mentions were crafted by religion and by his own hands. They were made by “petty thoughts” and turned into “Good cable” which was able to “enforce and draw” and turn into the “law” which he obeyed.
He is no longer going to be a part of this lifestyle. He is moving on, away from his confinement and “collar.” The final line repeats the declaration which appears at the beginning of the poem, “I will abroad,” he will depart.
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 final section of ‘The Collar’ concludes the narrator’s agitated speech and produces a slight twist to the narrative. He continues speaking to himself and tries to boost his confidence for the change he is trying to make. The speaker asks that the “death’s-head” leave him alone. He does not want to be bothered by his fears. It is his intention to “tie” them up and force them to serve his purpose.
The speech ends with a set of lines that utilize the rhyme scheme of abab. They are used to bring the speaker back to his known reality. He describes how his “rav[ing]” came to its climax and rather than building him up, it just brought on the voice of God. The speaker heard “Child!” And replied, “My Lord.” Like a child, he was chastised and brought back into the religious fold.