The Collar by George Herbert: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 A Brief Synopsis
  • 1:46 Analyzing Herbert's…
  • 2:57 Themes of 'The Collar'
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Having trouble making sense of George Herbert's 'The Collar?' Or maybe this is your first encounter with it? Either way, you can learn much more about the famous 17th-century poem in this lesson when you see it summarized and analyzed.

A Brief Synopsis of 'The Collar' by George Herbert

The Collar is a poem that was written by George Herbert in 1633. If you've read this poem, you may have found the beginning of the poem a bit off-putting. It begins abruptly, with a display of seemingly unfounded aggression. For no reason the reader's aware of, the poetic narrator starts by throwing a bit of a tantrum, flailing limbs as he 'struck the board' and yelling, 'No more; / I will abroad!' He asks whether he'll always be in the apparently miserable state he's in, but he finally concludes that 'my lines and life are free' for him to do as he pleases.

George Herbert (1593-1633), English poet, priest, and Anglican saint
Portrait of George Herbert

With that conclusion drawn, the narrator asks if he should stay in his current situation, then, and deal with all his resources, 'wine' and 'corn', being spent. The narrative voice also doesn't seem to have anything to show for all those misspent resources. Accordingly, he comes to his next question - if he still possibly has time to recover what he's already lost. The poetic narrator decides that there is, indeed, enough time; that is, provided he fills what time he has remaining with double pleasures to make up for those he missed out on while he still worried about right and wrong.

The narrator comes to the realization that he's been trapped in his present situation, allowing his own petty thoughts of goodness and duty to distract him from reality. To make things worse, he also realizes that he's simply refused to acknowledge the issue for a long time. At this point, the narrative voice decides it's time for action and comments on how people who refuse to change their fortunes deserve them. However, as the poem draws to a close and it seems the narrator would just keep ranting and raving, there's a surprising twist: the agitated and plaintive narrative voice is instantly calmed by faithfully responding to that of God.

Analyzing Herbert's 'The Collar'

Many of us can most likely remember a time (probably somewhere around our teen years) when we were rebellious and full of angst. If we can recall, we probably also made what we thought were reasonably passionate speeches defending our foul moods and unruly behavior. What might've sounded reasonable to us, though, most likely came off as extremely disorganized and not very well thought out.

George Herbert reflected this lack of organization with The Collar because this poem is very much like a teenage rant. The poetic narrator's angry and sulking because he's discovering that life's not fair, so the poem itself is disorganized; though he uses iambic meter, Herbert has various numbers of iambs per line with no discernible pattern.

In this way, The Collar is quite unlike Herbert's other works, which are typically well structured in all aspects, such as diction and meter. However, it still shows his handiwork as a piece of metaphysical poetry, a genre of verse works from the 17th century marked by their use of complex imagery to explore primarily concepts of love or religion. Herbert is considered one of the masters of this genre, and The Collar is largely responsible for that reputation.

Themes of 'The Collar'

One of the themes of this poem could be described as the downside of being good.

You might be familiar with the white collars worn by priests or other clergy members, and this particular article of clothing is what Herbert uses in the title of the poem to represent not only the attire but the entire burden of those taking religious orders. The narrator asks, 'Shall I be still in suit?' using the clothing of the profession as a way of examining whether or not he should remain as a clergyman.

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