Magazine: Renascence, Spring, 1993


Critics agree that George Herbert's poetry is very complex and subtle, and of all of his poems few have received more critical attention than "The Collar." Like many of Herbert's poems, "The Collar" has been put through the various critical sieves that modem critics have invented;[1] yet they have by no means exhausted the rich possibilities inherent in the poem, especially its biblical dimensions.

I am particularly interested in this essay in demonstrating that in "The Collar," a relatively short lyric poem, Herbert has articulated in very precise theological terms an attitude toward religious service that far transcends mere pietistic platitudes or conventional religious posturing, and I should like to begin by commenting briefly on the title of the poem.

Herbert is one of the first poets to use the titles of his poems as an integral part of their meaning. The title "The Collar," of course, is an emblematic image that informs our understanding of the whole poem. If the poem were untitled and one were asked to assign a title to it, I doubt if anyone would come up with "The Collar," since never does the word appear in the poem. Yet, as we know, the title contains a very complex pun.[2] The speaker of the poem, one who is, for most of the poem, in a state of rebellion, is obviously a priest who wears a collar that he wishes to discard. He strikes "the board" (which we later discover is, in fact, the altar, the symbol of the priesthood) and cries "No more"(1). One is reminded also of the slave's collar, which likewise is fitting because the speaker, for most of the poem, thinks of himself as a slave or servant who has served a demanding lord and who wishes to free himself from what he considers degrading and numbing servitude. Perhaps Herbert is also alluding to an animal collar since in his rebellious state the speaker gives up his rational soul and functions on the level of passion or the "animal soul": "But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde/At every word" (33-34). Thirdly, in the seventeenth century "collar" was pronounced very similarly to the word "choler"; and, of course, except for the last four lines of the poem, the speaker is indeed choleric in his rebellion. Thus, the pun in the title not only plays with the various kinds of "collars" that have kept the speaker in bondage, it also announces the tone of most of the poem. But, most important, the word "collar" was pronounced very much like "caller" in seventeenth-century English; and, above all, "The Collar" is a calling poem, one in which the speaker recognizes an interior calling by God: "Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child!/And I reply'd, My Lord" (35-36).

"Me thoughts" is a very important phrase because it makes clear that the speaker does not, in fact, actually hear the voice or call of God directly, but rather he comes to an interior recognition of that call. Thus the poem reflects the experience of many religious people who believe they have heard God's inner call; in other words, the drama of the poem is not removed from the level of ordinary experience into something highly mystical or mysteriously transcendendent that ordinary people can only admire from a distance at best. But, the crucial point to remember is that the speaker in the poem is not called "George" or "friend" or "servant"; he is specifically called "Child" (35). And, contrary to our expectation, he does not respond with "Father" or "good parent" but with the theologically appropriate phrase, "My Lord" (36).

My contention is that "The Collar" is, above all else, a "calling poem," or, in other words, an "election poem." Until the speaker recognizes the inner call of "Child," he remains bitter, angry, rebellious, and choleric; but once he comes to understand what "child" means in biblical terms, he redefines his relationship to God, who is calling him to a life of service and obedience, and wholeheartedly responds, "My Lord," to show his complete submission to God and his willingness to accept all that is implied by that submission. To have responded "Father," would have softened and even trivialized the conclusion of the poem and turned it into something much less powerful.

In Scripture the issuance of a call by God suggests election and also the immense importance that naming has in both the Old and New Testaments. For instance, in Genesis (1:5) we are told that God called or named "the light Day and the darkness he called Night," thereby showing His power over them. Later on, Adam names all of the animals. Now, even the most committed fundamentalist surely does not think that Adam stood there in Eden, scratching his primitive head, trying to think up the names of all the animals in creation--all in Hebrew, one presumes, or was it in Latin? That would have been quite a feat considering the rather elementary nature of language at the time. What the scriptural narrator means is simply that Adam has power and authority over the animals as God has power and authority over the cosmos. There are numerous examples in the Old Testament of specific naming. Abram, for instance, once he assumes the role of father of his people, was called Abraham by God, thereby indicating that he must now assume a new vocation and play a new role in salvational history. We have only to think of the various taboos that surrounded the use of the name "Yahweh" to realize the importance and the sacredness that Jews felt about names.

In the New Testament, the names of John and Jesus are ritualistically prescribed. Saul, once he ceases to persecute the early Church, becomes Paul, as Simon, Son of Jonah, before him became Peter, the rock upon which Christ would build his Church. Even today, the Christian practice is to give a specific name to each newly baptized person, indicating his or her specific identity in the Christian community. The assigning of an additional name to one receiving the sacrament of confirmation in Catholicism indicates that the person is no longer a child in his or her religion but is now ready to make an adult and freely chosen personal commitment to God, thereby taking on a new role in the drama of salvation. The practice of choosing a new name upon entering into the religious life as a nun or monk comes from a recognition that the person has given up a particular identity in the Christian community and has taken on a new one. Perhaps the human urge toward naming explains, in part at least, the modern scientific urge to assign names to things, as if to name and to label something--with symbols (words)--actually gives one power over it. So too, in "The Collar," in this "calling poem," we have a relationship, as we shall see, a very precise relationship, established by the inner call of "Child" and by the speaker's specific response, "My Lord." This conclusion of the poem is in no way a sentimental reversal in which the tension of the poem is somehow dissipated by mere emotional pleading.

Although I wish to focus on the last four lines of "The Collar," a few comments on the preceding thirty-two lines are necessary to set the stage for the powerful conclusion of the poem. As I read the poem, there is only one speaker. In lines 1-16, under the influence of his "heart" ("Not so, my heart" 17), the speaker complains of his state of servitude and proclaims in no uncertain terms that he wishes to free himself from his unbearable bondage "I will abroad" (2). In lines 17-26, that other side of the speaker, that part that recognizes when one is unreasonable and out of control, answers the objections of the heart by stating that there is "fruit" (17) and tells the speaker "thou hast hands" (18), thereby attempting to explain away the bitterness and rebelliousness that the speaker experiences. But, in lines 27-32, the heart responds, now more vehemently and more bitterly than before; there is a kind of intense anger and urgency in these lines that is characteristic of one who realizes that he is losing an argument and resents his own stupidity and his inability to remain calm ("Away; take heed;/I will abroad./Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears./He that forbears/To suit and serve his need,/Deserves his load" (27-32). This highly emotional response to the heart is necessary if the final four lines are to have their intended impact. The point is that calm reasonableness will not resolve the speaker's conflict; in fact, it serves to irritate him even more and elicits from him more despair than ever. The choleric response of the speaker in these lines emphasizes the fact that the resolution of the speaker's dilemma will come only from a "call," the call of "Child," which brings him to a full realization of exactly what his relationship is with God.

The use of the past tense in "The Collar" is important, for it shows that, for all of the frenzy and excited rhetoric and rough form (free verse) in the first 32 lines, the poem is actually one of reflection, discernment, and analysis, a dramatic moment relived and re-experienced with an intensely emotional and highly moving response. Within the narrative framework, Herbert describes perhaps a personal history of one moment of outburst, but he also suggests that the speaker of his poem recapitulates the history of all men and women who have, through the ages, encountered the same God. In "The Collar," as in most of his other poems, Herbert is not interested in pouring out his individual experience as something unique, but rather he wants to articulate a very precise theological point in intimate and personal terms. He tells us in the letter he sent to Nicholas Ferrar (Works xxvii) that the poems in The Temple present a picture of "the many spiritual conflicts" that passed between God and his soul before he could subject his will to that of Jesus, his Master; but, for Herbert, these "conflicts" are significant only in so far as they demonstrate the love of God for man and man's good fortune in being able, after some anguish and perhaps some failing, to respond wholeheartedly to that love.

As I have already suggested, "Me thoughts" (1. 35) that begins the resolution of the poem is crucial to a correct understanding of "The Collar." It highlights the notion that the resolution, the calling and naming that occurs, is not from without but is a new interior understanding of the speaker's relationship to God. Up to this point in the poem, through all of his raving, the speaker has assumed that he is a slave or degraded servant of the Lord and regards his service and suffering as intolerable and fruitless. But with the call "Child," in a flash he recognizes his error, perceives clearly his relationship to the Lord, and accepts wholeheartedly his Christian destiny. All is resolved, therefore, not in a sentimental or "pious" submission, but in precise theological terms. To view the resolution in any but biblical terms would be to cheapen or, at least, to soften its very strong conclusion. For the word "Child" designates the particular relationship that Christ came to establish between God and man.

Throughout the New Testament,[3] the title "children" is a common one for Christians. For example, in Romans 8:16, we read, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God"; in Ephesians 5:1, St. Paul writes, "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children," and again in Galatians 4:4, he says, "Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a Son: and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ." Christ himself warns his followers, "Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein" (Mark 10:15).

In the Greek translation of the Bible, a translation that Herbert knew very well, there are two separate words used for the Hebrew word "ebed" (servant)--"doulos" (doulos) and "pais" (pialphaIs). A "doulos" is a slave, a bondsman, one in a servile condition, and is used in the pejorative sense as in "slave of sin"; a "pais," on the other hand, is an elected servant, a favored servant, or a child that stands in an intimate relationship with the Lord and is equal to "garcon" in French and "puer" in Latin.[4] In the Old Testament Servant Songs (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:13 to 53:12), which New Testament commentators interpreted as a prophetic definition of the kind of man the Messiah would be, namely, an elected servant, the word "pais" is used to describe him. In the four "oracles" concerning the servant of God, we read, "Behold my servant ["pais"], whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth" (Isaiah 41:1); "It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant ["pais"] to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel" (Isaiah 49:6); "Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant ["pais"], that walketh in darkness, and hath no light?"; and "Behold, my servant ["pais"] shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high" (Isaiah 52:13).

In the New Testament, when Christ is called "the child" or "son" or "servant of God" (for example, in Acts 3:13,26: "His Son Jesus"; in Acts 4:27,30: "thy holy child Jesus"), again the word used to describe his relationship to His Father is "pais," although in Philippians 2:7, it is said that "he took upon him the form of a servant ["doulos"], and was made in the likeness of men." In Matthew 12:17-18 we read, "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Behold my servant ["pais"], whom I have chosen, my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased." At the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, Matthew again adapts the words of Isaiah and renders the word "pals" as "Son," "And to a voice from heaven saying, This is my beloved Son ["pais"], whom I am well pleased" (3:17), thus indicating that Christ, the elected servant-son of God, will fulfill the messianic promise through obedient sonship to His Father.

From a theological viewpoint, Christ is the son or child of the Father, not only by the relationship that he had prior to his Incarnation but also in his humanity by that relationship that He effected in his carrying out the Father's command in perfect obedience to redeem mankind by freely giving up His own will and by fully accepting a sacrificial death on the cross. This profound theological relationship of Christ to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah would be familiar, of course, to an Anglican divine as learned and devout as George Herbert. Moreover, if this reasoning were not enough, it would be the only way in which one could make any sense out of the great Christological hymn in the Epistle to the Philippians, which reads:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.

The glory of Christ, then, was merited, in a sense, in his humanity by an act of perfect obedience to the Father's will in freely accepting the role of servant, or, in other words, by accepting the "collar." In his acceptance, through this obedience, Christ undid the effects of the disobedience and rebellion of the first Adam and of the subsequent sons and daughters of Adam. In the call "Child" (1. 35), the speaker in Herbert's poem recognizes a new perspective in his relationship to the Lord. He is not a "doulos," a degraded servant, as he thought, but rather, like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and like Christ himself, he is a "pais;" and he realizes that he too is called upon to carry out the will of the divine Caller. To accept this call, this collar, is to be prepared to enter into the mystery of suffering and death, as did Christ, who was also the "pais" or servant child of the Father. The demanding challenge is issued, and the speaker's response is "My Lord," thus indicating his total submission to the will of the Father and a complete acceptance of the role that has been clearly defined in the call "Child."

In the response "My Lord" (1.36), we have a tremendously exciting and powerful conclusion to the poem. The speaker, realizing fully what this call means, surrenders himself in Christ-like obedience to that Father whom now, in Christ, he claims. Again, the word "Lord" needs to be seen in its biblical context.[5] In the Septuagint Old Testament, the word used for Yahweh is "Kurios" (kupios) meaning Lord, a rendering of the Hebrew word "Adonai." When the wold "Kurios" is used in the New Testament, it means "owner," "master," or simply the "lord"; and it is used extensively by Christ in the parables (for example, in Mark 12:9; Matthew 18:20; 25:20; and Luke 13:8). It is also used by a son for his father (for instance, in Matt. 21:30:) and in addressing a superior with respect and courtesy (for example, in Matthew 27:63; and Acts 16:30). After the Resurrection, the disciples apply the word to Christ, thereby indicating His divinity. In John 21:5-7, we read that, after his Resurrection, Jesus appears before his disciples, who are fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and He says, "Children ("paidia"], have ye any meat?" John says to Peter, "It is the Lord" ("Kyrios"). Here we find a very clear juxtaposition of "Child" and "Lord."

It might be expected that the speaker in Herbert's poem, called "Child," would respond by saying "Father"; but such a response would not fully establish the precise relationship that is explicitly stated in the response "My Lord." The choleric speaker, realizing that he is not a slave but an elected servant and child of the Father, one who holds a similar relationship to God that Christ held, answers in total submission, fully recognizing and accepting the consequences of his decision. In effect, he says that he is willing to take on the role of suffering servant that Christ accepted, and he realizes that by obedience he will merit the name of "Child" and that then the wheat and wine (11-12) of the Eucharist that previously were lacking in spiritual refreshment and consolation will again become sweet and nourishing to him. Like Christ, the speaker will now obey in love and, like Christ, will continue faithfully in his "calling" by living out a sacrificial life through a series of sacrificial acts--and, in his faithful imitation of Christ, will accept even death without fear.

The subtle, yet precise, scriptural allusions in the poem should not cause us, however, to lose sight of the gentle humor that also permeates it. Perhaps the reason for the speaker's vivid recalling of his choleric outburst against Christian service and suffering is only so that he can relish once more the assurance that the Caller loves him. This playfulness is not at all out of keeping with the love that surrounds the relationship between God and the believer. Many of Herbert's poems in The Temple reflect this kind of playful familiarity with God that is one of their most attractive features.[6] However, it is important to remember the distinction between "serious" and "solemn." When Herbert is not "solemn," that is not a reason for thinking he is not "serious." In "The Collar," he is quite "serious" in his playfulness.


1) See Roberts, listing more than 120 modern studies of the poem.

2) See Norton and Bickham.

3) I am indebted to Howard J. Gray, S. J., who, many years ago, as a student in my graduate seminar at the University of Wisconsin, pointed out many of the specific biblical allusions in the poem and, in particular, commented on the differences between a "doulos" and "pals" in the Greek Bible. I wish to thank him for very kindly allowing me to use the results of his research and critical insights.

4) See Liddell and Scott, s.v. pialphaIs. For a very detailed discussion of the use of "pals" in the Old and New Testaments, see Jeremias.

5) For a discussion of "Lord," see Richardson (130-31) and Howard (82-83).

6) For a discussion of play in Herbert's poetry, see Nardo (79-104).

5) For a discussion of"Lord," see Richardson, pp. 82-83.

Works Cited

Bickham, Jack M. "Herbert's 'The Collar'." Explicator 10 (1951): Item 17.

Herbert, George. The Works of George Herbert. Ed. F.E. Hutchinson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941.

Howard, Wilbert Francis. "The Language of the New Testament." In The Bible As Literature: An Anthology. Ed. Mary Esson Reid. Cleveland: Howard Allen, 1959, pp. 82-83.

Jeremias, Joachim. ? Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Friedrich. Trans. and Ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1967, V, 654-717.

Liddell, Henry and Robert Scott. A Greek English Lexicon. Rev. Henry Stuart Jones. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Nardo, Anna K. The Ludic Self in Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Albany: State U of New York P, 1991.

Norton Dan. "Herbert's 'The Collar'." Explicator 3 (1945): Item 46.

Richardson, Alan, ed. The Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: MacMillan, 1964.

Roberts, John R. George Herbert: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, Revised Edition, 1905-1984. Rev. Ed. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1988.


By John R. Roberts

John R. Roberts, Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has published essays on Donne, Southwell, Crashaw and Herbert, as well as various editions of bibliography and collections of critical essays. He is general editor of the commentary for the forthcoming Donne variorum edition and is past president of the John Donne Society.

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Source: Renascence, Spring93, Vol. 45 Issue 3, p197, 8p.