‘The Collar’ is one of the finest poems written by George Herbert in the history of metaphysical lyrics. It can be said that all the leading metaphysical characteristics like dramatic opening, argumentative approach, colloquial tone or concrete imagery -epitomize in this single poem.
The title word of the poem "Collar" refers to the white band worn by the clergy, and it is the role of a priest that the poem alludes to. The word ‘collar’ in the title, therefore, symbolizes the priest's role as servant. Ironically written, ‘The Collar’ is, in fact, about the struggle to maintain faith in God, although the thirty-two of its thirty-six lines describe what the poem itself calls the ravings of a person who is rebellious against the restrictive pressures that surround him as a priest.
The poem shows that the poet is involved in a deep-rooted and desperate struggle with his own soul. He almost seems to doubt whether God exists at all and gives rebellious expression against the disciplines of his vocation of priesthood.
In the opening line Herbert writes,
“I struck the board, and cry'd, No more.”
Thus the opening goes abrupt and dramatic, evoking violent action, and is delivered in a personal and colloquial manner. Technically written in iambic meter with varied line lengths, the poem takes the form of arguments, using logic to make the reasoning convincing and persuasive. Herbert writes:
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
The opening stanza, thus, is a complaint voiced by a person embittered against the constraints that bind him. Impatient with his condition, he therefore, resolves to break free.
The second stanza takes on more personal notes and the poet questions whether he being a priest does not deserve any reward. Using the image of ‘harvest’, the poet laments that as a clergy, 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.
The lamentation continues in the third stanza as well. This time, the poet compares his won restrained life to the free life of other people who enjoy worldly pleasures. He argues that he also has the right to crown him with the beauty of life and enjoy flowers and garlands. Growing a little more furious, the poet hints at the future and expresses the hope that all is not lost:
‘Not so, my heart : but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.’
In the fourth stanza, the poet becomes almost aggressive and wishes to recover all that has been lost indulging himself in double pleasures. In fact, this is the most paradoxical stanza which offers the core meaning of the poem. Herbert cries-
“leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,”
In the above lines, the metaphors like ‘cage’ or ‘rope of sands’ through which Herbert explains his restrictions have double meanings. On the surface, as Herbert says that it is his ‘pettie thoughts’ which make the ‘cage’ or ‘rope of sands’ feel like a ‘good cable’ which draws him towards God. But looking from a deeper point of view, it can be said that what Herbert shouts boastfully from the beginning is itself the results of ‘pettie thoughts’. Thus, the phrase ‘pettie thoughts’ has a double edged function. If Herbert all out denies the existence of God, then the chain of restrictions he is challenging is a non-existent. But so far he admits that God exists, all his bombastic words signify nothing but ‘pettie thoughts’.
In stanza fifth, the poet crucially loses hold on his own arguments. Herbert now declares to quit his profession and thus overcome his fears altogether. Ironically he discloses his shortcomings by showing his own inability to shoulder the responsibility of his vocation:
“ He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.”
Declaring so, Herbert loses all grounds and proves that the problem is not with the profession of a priest, rather with the personality he is carrying inside.
Finally, the last stanza is a resultant anticlimax. This time, the poet is able to come out all of his ‘pettie thoughts’ and hears the voice of God calling- ‘Childe’ and to which he responds-‘My Lord’. Instantly, the distressed note in the poet is silenced and the discontent is passed. God does not need to answer the arguments raised by the poet. His mere presence exposes their hollowness. Therefore, hearing the voice of God, the poet recognizes his place and position and immediately surrenders himself to the authority of God. Thus, the final stanza very beautifully leads to a graceful conclusion making the readers realize the affectionate relationship between the Creator and the Creation.