When times are hard and difficulties beset us, we all tend to say to ourselves or to others, "That's it - I've had enough of this!" George Herbert was no exception, and in this poem he expresses very forcefully his evident frustration.
Of all George Herbert's poems, this is probably the one that most needs to be read aloud to do it justice. The dramatic opening line demands attention (a trick he may well have learned from John Donne) and makes it clear from the outset that this is no run-of-the-mill verse. And the use of such a loose rhyme struture, bordering on free verse, heightens the sense of frustration and bewilderment in the speaker. But ever the master craftsman, Herbert is in control and knows precisely what he is doing, and where he is going with his argument.
As is so often the case with Herbert, there are strong autobiographical overtones and perhaps in this poem he is questioning why the impressive academic achievements of his twenties did not deliver tangible recognition in the form of high public office. Possibly he is also reflecting on the conflicting expectations or constraints others had placed on him, notably his mother Magdalen who had wanted him to enter the priesthood, his Cambridge college fellowship which had required him to be ordained, and his influential kinsman the 3rd Earl of Pembroke who had expected his support in the wider secular worlds of politics and commerce.
The poem's title 'The Collar' makes it plain that this poem is all about constraint - having struggled to conform with his or her own ideals, the speaker feels keenly a sense of lost opportunities and resolves to break free. The conceit Herbert employs here is the iron or leather circlet placed around the neck of animals, so that their freedom of movement can be constrained by an attached chain or leash. Critics have also suggested that the title is a typical Herbertian pun on the word 'choler', a term much in use at that time to describe anger or intemperance and which the poem exemplifies.
In this poem we have yet another example of the way Herbert likes to structure his poetry around a conversation, very often with God but in this case essentially with himself. It starts with a reflection of the sentiment found in one of his earlier verses, 'Affliction (I)' - 'I will change the service, and go seek/ Some other master out'. From there, Herbert's speaker launches into a series of rhetorical questions, which occupy almost half the poem. Perhaps they can be summarised as "Why should I have to put up with this?". As the speaker complains, there were good times in the past, and only internal doubts and agonies stand in the way of achieving his or her potential ('no bays to crown it').
In the next part of the poem, a little voice inside the speaker's head points out that there is still time to change course and return to former glories ('Recover all thy sigh-blown age') if only he or she will stop fretting and worrying about the situation, and indulging in incessant inner debate about its rights and wrongs. The fault, says the voice, lies in trying to conform to self-imposed constraints - constraints that are entirely artificial ('rope of sands'). In modern parlance, this little tempting voice is urging "What's the problem? Go for it!" And for a moment it seems that the speaker is persuaded, and is resolved to take action to break free.
But then in the last couple of lines another voice is heard. Herbert often brings his poems to a surprising conclusion - in this case, it is God tugging on the leash and calling the speaker to order. Perhaps inevitably, the result is meek submission. It turns out that it is entirely his or her own personal faith and religious belief that has the speaker 'collared'.
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