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  • Writer's pictureCrone

A poem for feeling angry

The Collar

George Herbert

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?

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?

All wasted?

Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,

And thou hast hands.

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.

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.

Yes, I'm feeling angry. I'll maybe not go into all the details of that. Suffice to say that this poem always helps me in such situations. I am not a believer, but I do have inner resources that I can (try to) call upon, or listen to, to help me let go of anger.

I have again recorded a reading, which you can find here, and again I offer a brief analysis.

George Herbert was, like John Donne, a Metaphysical poet - so again, the language has the tone of real speech, despite a complex poetic structure. There's a wonderful, energetic and creative tension between the sound of speech and the constraints of structure which Herbert masterfully manages. He was also an Anglican priest, and the poem expresses the frustrations of faith, doubt, belief and service.

The title itself is very clever. If you imagine it spoken, it could be collar or choler. The latter means anger - choler was one of the four bodily humours of ancient and mediaeval physiology, the one specifically related to peevishness and anger. as for collar, of course, priests wear dog collars, as they are called - so one can see it as the badge of his office. But the sense of the dog collar is there too - a restraint and a control, limiting his freedom.

The opening line is excellent - we are thrown into the middle of the drama right away. It is forceful and rouses curiosity - what is this character railing against? We sense the frustration - sighing and pining - and then the poet asserts his freedom. Of course he can go, he's not in lockdown! Indeed, what holds him back is not a physical restraint, but the spiritual doctrines. And yet he continues with his angry diatribe, as is often the case in the internal to-ing and fro-ing when deciding on a major change of course. He bemoans his condition, the reasons he doesn't want to stay 'in suit' (in the priestly robes and in this formalised, constrained life).

'Have I no harvest but a thorn...' Here he asks himself what comes from the hard labour he's invested. He just bleeds and gets no nourishment from his faith.

He admits there was wine and corn, but he has lost it in his grief. Religion was offering him comfort, but no longer - and there is a sense here of personal responsibility. Perhaps his own doubts have driven away the chance of succour.

There is self pity in the thought that he alone has missed out. Is he the only one whom God refuses to favour? This self-pity is reinforced by his complaint that he has no bays (honour), flowers (sensual delights) or garlands (social acclaim, perhaps).

'All blasted? / All wasted?' is wonderful - the repetition, the rhythm and use of the short line, the assonance, it's very powerful, banging home the sense of loss and resentment.

Now comes the turn - 'Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,' - as he argues that he can find pleasure by leaving the Church. Double pleasure, even, to make up for all that has been lost to him in service. He can stop moralising and judging, he can break out of the cage. Note the description of what holds him - a rope of sands - as he suggests that the Christian code he has lived by is just words, silly thoughts that he has made into a rigid law. He does not have to be bound by these beliefs. He can shake off the shackles. He can live a secular life, which seems here to offer such freedom and enjoyment in contrast to his ascetic existence as a priest.

Death's head is a memento mori - he is giving himself a reminder that man is not immortal, that one will die and thus should seek fulfillment in this life. He must forget his fears about eternal punishment. And the final three lines of his rant state that he is responsible for his own life - if he lets himself live this miserable existence, it is his own choice and his own fault.

But at this point, as his tantrum has raged into a whirlwind, he hears that still calm voice say 'Child!' And he has been heard. He is soothed by the realisation that he is not alone. The voice of God offers no condemnation or recrimination - there is connection and forgiveness, divine grace. There is love, and that is enough.

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Apr 03, 2020

Your reading is excellent. Patrick Stewart is doing one-a-day sonnets lately online, but you are giving him a run for his money!

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