As Lent begins, Richard Harries offers a reflection on ‘The Collar’ by George Herbert (1593-1633)


A collar is sometimes put round the neck of a dog or other animal to restrain them, as reflected in the saying ‘To slip the collar’. There may also be a pun on the word ‘choler’, meaning anger. Although Herbert came to be regarded as saintly, according to his brother he was not exempt from ‘choler’. In this poem that anger is given free reign as the poet raves against the constraints of being a clergyman. The title could not however refer to a clerical collar, colloquially known as a ‘dog collar’, because these were not worn until 1894.

There used to be a phrase in the army which summed up a rebellious solder. ‘He threw down his rifle and said “I’ll soldier no more.”’. This is what Herbert is doing here in banging his fist on the table and shouting that he had had enough and would go abroad. He wanted to get away from it all and start a new life in another country. The third line finds him almost imagining himself as a man of the road, just going out and wandering where he wants, thinking himself free to do just what he wanted when he wanted.

This is a poem in which form and content are perfectly matched. The lines, matching the state of rebellion, do not conform to any regular pattern. At the same time they vividly convey not just an idea but an emotion. Take the opening


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?


We can almost hear the bang on the table and the cry and feel the anger in both.  ‘struck’ and ‘cried’ are like the cracking of a whip. Whilst ‘board’, ‘more’ and ‘abroad’ stretch forward as though already leaving.  All combine internal rhyming and alliteration, as do ‘sigh’ and ‘pine’. Then we are brought up short with ‘Shall I be still in suit?’, which vividly expresses and evokes a sense of constraint.

  Then in line seven he focuses on one complaint in particular, his life was so unproductive, nothing was coming to fruition. It was a particular complaint of Gerard Manley Hopkins as well, when he was going through a bad patch. Here Herbert remembers a time when there was corn and wine, images in the psalms of flourishing. But now not only has the last year been wasted, there are no garlands of victory to reward his efforts at the end of it.

Whilst these verses express anger and a desire to be free, at the same time there is a hidden message coming through in the double-entendres. The board he bangs is not just the one in the dining room, but the communion table. The thorn brings to mind the crown of thorns, the blood the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, the wine that of Holy Communion, which is our cordial fruit, and the corn which is made into the true bread which is Christ himself.

Then from line 17 he plays devil’s advocate and says he can make up for what he has lost with ‘double pleasure’. Almost like an upright man having a male menopause and suddenly starting to live a life of dissipation. He can give up the whole idea of thinking some things right or fit and others not. He can burst out of his cage. He can realise that the ropes which bind him are made of sand formed by his petty thoughts. So again he urges himself to go abroad. A death’s-head was a picture or model of a skull used to frighten people. The poet is urged to call its bluff and tie up his fears. If he simply stayed there enduring his life as it was, he would deserve his load.

Then as his raving got fiercer and wilder he simply heard the word ‘Child’ and he replied ‘My Lord’. When a child is sobbing with unhappiness they are sometimes comforted by a parent just taking them into their arms and holding them close. Nothing need be said.

Perhaps Herbert as a child had experienced such gentle  reassurance from his much loved mother or one of her servants. Here he is not frightened of depicting himself a  child in relation to God, one in a state of total dependence and trust. Indeed Jesus himself had said that we must become like little children. As Herbert put it in his poem  ‘H. Baptism’ (2) ‘Childhood is health’.

There are a number of poems expressing a sense of rebellion to God, of which this is the best. It is an experience that many Christians will have had one time or another, in mild or strong form. Sometimes this comes about because of a too limited, and therefore distorted, view of God. God is the eternal, underlying ground of all that exists, the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is not one cause amongst many.  He is not a thing in the world of things, an item in a list of items. Because he is God, in this sense, his reality is not a threat. In the case of finite things it is often the case that the more there is of one, the less there is of others. This is not so with God, just the opposite. The more there is of God, the freer we are to be fully and truly ourselves. So one reason we might feel a sense of rebellion against God is because we have a wrong picture in our mind, we are thinking of a reality like other realities which inhibits our freedom.

A true picture of God does not block our freedom. Furthermore if God is good, all good, our true and everlasting good, the more we are given over to God, the more we are on the way to realising our true good.

This having been said, there may be occasions when we are genuinely doing something we know to be wrong and the rebellion is indeed directed against the true God. Then, again, there is the call of Christ to follow him and that may indeed go against what we immediately want to do, so there is a genuine tussle. With Herbert there was indeed such a call, to be ordained, about which he had such mixed feelings, and which indeed seemed to him to be a constraint on his life. Yet he came to discover, as so many have, that ‘In thy service is perfect freedom’.

The Rt Revd Lord (Richard) Harries, Baron Harries of Pentregarth, FRSL, was the Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006, and the Gresham Professor of Divinity (2008-2012). An acclaimed author, his recent works include Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty Poems for Lent and Easter (SPCK, 2021) and Seeing God in Art: The Christian Faith in 30 Images (SPCK, 2020).


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.