The two poems I want to share today come from very different places, and represent two dominant aspects of George Herbert’s poetry – that of conflict with or rebellion against God and His will, and that of the profound peace and sense of assurance that comes from giving up the fight and trusting in Him. The first of these (presenting the conflict/rebellion angle) is entitled The Collar, and is presented in a slightly disorderly fashion, both in terms of its rhythm and language, and in terms of its verse alignment, to reflect the chaotic, tumultuous feelings of the author.
The general setting of the poem is of a row breaking out at a dinner table, and its title is more than likely a pun on the word ‘choler’ – ill will or bad temper. The atmosphere of petulant rage conjured up by Herbert here is reflective of the childish rebellion we all feel from time to time towards God, demanding a limitless, but ultimately purposeless, freedom, instead of resting in the obligations we are bound to as followers of Christ, and in which we find true liberty:
I struck the board, and cry’d, No more;
I will abroad.
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?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me bloud, and not restore
What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
Sure there was wine,
Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the yeare onely lost to me?
Have I no bayes to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
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 pettie 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 deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.
The aimless protesting of The Collar, which flits between complaints of the inconstancy of life and the futility of speculation (c.f.; the ‘rope of sands’) ends with calm resolution, the author’s rage interrupted by the voice of God (the ‘Caller’ – another pun perhaps) calling him back to himself, and reminding him that he is a child of God, beloved of Him. The author then replies, with a serenity in sharp distinction to the rest of the poem, and with a childlike affection very different in kind from the petulance that has gone before it, ‘My Lord’ – after all his ranting and raving, he knows that God is for him, and only in Him he can find the peace that he is looking for.
The second poem, entitled The Call, is of a different stripe in general, though there is a point of contact with the final two lines of The Collar, insofar as this latter poem is wholly serene, and could perhaps even describe the frame of mind of one who, having just experienced a fit of self-indulgent rebellion such as is described in The Collar, is now overtaken by a feeling of immense gratitude and reconciliation. The tone of The Call is even melodic (indeed, Vaughan Williams later set it to music), and reads as a gentle ode, or love poem to Jesus, the Way, Truth, and Life.
There is also a lively intimacy to The Call, which Herbert creates by employing each of the nouns of the first line in each stanza to be the subject for the following three lines – this allows him to flesh out the significance of each term, but also to create a sense of circularity, and ultimately familiarity, which makes us feel comfortable, enjoying the peace that the author also enjoys and wishes to communicate. This is compounded by the final line, which ties together all three nouns from the first line of the stanza, adding a sense of completeness and inclusion to the warmth of the preceding lines:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a feast, as mends in length:
Such a strength, as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.
The final line above, which speaks of ‘such a heart, as joys in love’ could act as a summary of George Herbert’s whole vision. He is constantly striving to communicate the life of faith, and though this sometimes takes the form of struggle or doubt, it is almost always resolved by a feeling of assurance that the author (and so the reader) is beloved of God, regardless of their failings and of the wavering nature of their faith. When Herbert communicates the moments when this sense of assurance and peace are found and embraced, it results in some of the most comforting moments in the English language, so much so that it is easy to forget the skill that has gone into it – it takes a lot of work to make things look as simple and as effortless as Herbert does.
In The Collar and The Call, we have two examples of the extremes of Herbert’s inner life, and extremes with which most readers can empathise. It is his ability to communicate such common (though by no means commonplace) experiences with such simplicity and such guileless profundity that makes Herbert such an enduring poetic voice. As well as this ability to dig deep into the religious experience, and reproduce it in accessible yet deeply insightful forms, one also gets a real sense of the authenticity of Herbert’s voice – we feel that he has truly been there, both raving at the heavens in complaint, and kneeling in calm acceptance of God’s love. This latter quality allows him to be to us more than just a great poet, but a friend in faith as well.