Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Collar - George Herbert

Poetry has a bit of an image problem at the moment. No doubt with one eye on league tables, it no longer features prominently in many schools' syllabuses. It is seen as a special interest pursuit or, perhaps worse, as elitist and exclusive.

That is partly true. It is certainly harder work to read a poem than it is to read the sports pages. But I think the hard work can be worth it. Over the next few weeks, I would like to examine a particular poem in some detail and try to analyse both what it means but, more importantly, what makes it special. In this post, I would like to examine The Collar by George Herbert and introduce you to poetry's ability to communicate unfamiliar experiences.


Here is a link to the text:



The "meaning" is extremely clear. The writer of the poem starts out extremely angry, striking the table fiercely. He has had enough and is going to leave the country. He has had enough sighing and pining for his religion and feels that he is missing out on pleasure. He is going to make up for lost time by having double rations of pleasure. He seems to be getting more and more determined, his language more and more resolute. But just at the peak of his anger and at the moment he has finally resolved to devote himself to a life of pleasure he thinks he hears God's voice speaking kindly to him. His fury disappears immediately and he replies simply "My Lord", his faith reaffirmed in an instant.


What I find special about this poem is its ability to communicate an unfamiliar experience directly. I am not at all religious. I have therefore never experienced either strong faith, or strong doubt. This poem takes us on a journey with a man whose faith is sorely tested, but which ends up stronger. Even if we are not religious, we identify strongly with the writer and begin to understand the emotions he is experiencing.

The poem achieves this by the contrast between the build up to a crescendo and the calm language of pure love in the final four lines.

Let's examine the language a little more closely:

We all identify with that initial striking of the table. How many times have we done that and said that we have "had enough". How many times is that just bluster and bravado? That is how we meet the speaker. At first he seems to be blustering. But he gradually starts to realise that he is "free as the road, loose as the wind". He can do something about his situation if he wants to. He also focuses specifically on the material things his religious life makes him give up. The overblown vagueness of the image of the thorn draining his blood and not replacing it with "cordial fruit" leads him to think of the wine he could be drinking and from there onto the food he could be eating.

Focusing on these specifics makes him become determined and coolly rational. "Not so, my heart, but there is fruit". This is the rational head telling the heart that in fact something can be done about this situation and when we hear "I will abroad" again, this is the voice of a man who has made up his mind.

And then he thinks he hears a voice calling "Child". He replies instantly, unthinkingly "My Lord" bowing to without question to God. This isn't a surrender. He is not a dog who has been pulled back forcibly by his collar. The voice pulling him back comes from inside. This is the simple acquiescence of someone who realises that he is indeed "free as the road, loose as the wind", but is choosing to adhere to the faith embodied in his priest's collar.

What a truly amazing poem.


  1. Thanks for your analysis! We're reading this in class, and your commentary helps a lot!

  2. Yes, thank you. Very nicely explained.

  3. I am a brazilian admirer of English Literature. I saw this poem by Herbert in a book by Harold Bloom. Tks for the analysis, it helped me a lot.

  4. im glad that i got a perfect explaination

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