And I replied “My Lord”: A Reading of George Herbert’s “The Collar”

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As someone who did not always observe All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day, I have grown to appreciate the spiritual significance of both these feasts deeply. As we remember the followers of Jesus who died before us, these feasts remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and encourage us to “run the race that is set before us…” (Heb. 12: 1–4).

But sometimes, “running the race that is set before us” feels like a desperate crawl on our knees instead of a slow, leisurely pace. Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that to follow him is to follow in the way of the cross (Matt. 16:24–26). The path to eternal life can feel more like death, and it seems remarkable that anyone is willing to run this race at all.

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So, in those moments when they felt most faint and tired, how did those saints persevere in their faith? Whenever I go through the same trials and tribulations, where can I find the spiritual fortitude to live and die in the way that they did?

When I think about these sorts of questions, I often read a poem titled “The Collar,” written by Anglican clergyman George Herbert, to remind myself of what it means to be a saint who endures hardship and “runs the race” well.

(This article will analyze the poem by breaking it into smaller chunks or stanzas. Because this poem was not initially written in stanzas, it would be best to read the whole poem first.)

A Poor Harvest

The poem begins with a dramatic, sudden emotional outburst deep within Herbert’s soul. 

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?

The visual image of Hebert striking the table emphasizes the pain, anger, and frustration that he feels toward his life. He loudly proclaims “no more” to his current life and desires to live in a completely different manner. Although “sighing” and “pining” define his present life, he now boldly chooses to define his life as “free” and “loose.” He sees his current life of faith as a needless “collar” that binds him from living a life of freedom and happiness.

Herbert continues to lament his current state while simultaneously remembering when his life seemed good.

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?

Herbert uses the agricultural image of harvesting to contrast the former blessed seasons of his life with his current season of pain. Although there once was a season of “wine” and joy, it became “dried” out by his pain-induced “sighs.” Likewise, his harvest of “corn,” which signifies a season of abundant provision, has been “drowned” out by his “tears.” Despite his steadfast faithfulness and devotion, Herbert’s current harvest is only “a thorn” in contrast to the “cordial fruit” of his past.

Moreover, the fact that Herbert’s poor harvest seems to only occur in his life and not in the lives of those around him augments his bitter despair. Herbert’s question, “Is the year only lost to me?” reveals the internal sense of comparison within Herbert’s soul. One can imagine the questions wandering throughout Hebert’s mind while writing this: “Why am I not experiencing the same measure of blessing as those around me? Despite my consistent faithfulness, why am I the only one suffering this way? Is the year only lost to me?”

Leaving the Cage

This leads Herbert to proclaim his independence from his former way of life boldly.

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;

Despite his lack of harvest, Herbert looks around and sees that “there is fruit.” Hebert reasons that he can recover from losing his “sigh-blown age.” He now believes that happiness can be found in pursuing “double pleasures” and leaving behind his former life that only brought needless, self-imposed suffering. He urges his heart to “forsake thy cage” that “petty thoughts have made.” Although these thoughts are merely a “rope of sands,” he has mentally formed them into “good cable” that has come to “enforce and draw” and be a “law” to Herbert.

All this imagery reinforces Hebert’s current bitterness toward his life of faith. Hebert views his life of faith as a self-imposed prison, preventing him from experiencing freedom and joy. Although he may have once experienced the pleasure of following Jesus, it has long been replaced by drudgery, sorrow, and pain.

The End of the Matter

As the poem draws to a close, Herbert’s resolution to leave his faith seems strong and clear.

          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.”

After all his spiritual toil and sacrifice, Hebert has reached the end of his limits. He chooses to leave behind his “collar” of religion that inhibits him from worldly pleasure. Done with his old way of life, he decides to be reborn into a life of uninhibited freedom. But, just as Herbert finishes his dramatic renunciation of faith, the poem turns unexpectedly.

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
          At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, ‘Child!’
          And I replied ‘My Lord.’ 

After all his shouting, questioning, and wondering, a still, small voice interrupts Herbert. It immediately wrestles away his attention from his situation and directs it to the One who calls him. In that moment, with his attention now directed away from himself and his own situation, he remembers the identity given to him by the eternal God who meets him in his anger, pain, and confusion: “Child.” As he hears this proclamation of identity, Herbert’s resolution changes from one of rebellion to one of obedience, and he replies, “My Lord.” Hebert remains tied to his faith but with a renewed sense of the One in whom his faith is placed.

And while nothing about Hebert’s situation seems to have changed, this divine encounter with the “One Who Calls” changes everything.

Looking to the One Who Calls Us

Herbert’s poem is a powerful reminder of what it means to be a saint. The saints who lived and died well personally encountered Jesus, said “yes” to his call, and continued to say “yes” to him day after day. They followed the encouragement of the author of Hebrews, who exhorted his audience to continuously look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2a).

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the Gathering, an event hosted by the Matthew 25 Initiative of the ACNA. It was a privilege to worship and learn alongside clergy and laity who have dedicated their lives to serving those society places in its margins. As I talked with fellow Gathering participants, one of the things that particularly stood out to me was how deeply many of these participants experienced suffering. Yet, despite their suffering, they carried a joy that could only be understood as supernatural. The beauty of their lives reflected the beauty of the One who continually calls them (and all of us!) to acts of justice and mercy.

As I reflect on what it means to be a saint, I am grateful to be surrounded by such a great “cloud of witnesses” who have shown me it is possible to persevere in the life of faith even when life gets difficult. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, I pray that I also may be someone who consistently says “yes” to whatever Jesus calls me to do.


Photo by Deyan Georgiev, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

October 31, 2023

Author

Russell Vick

Russell Vick is currently the curate at Incarnation Anglican Church in South Arlington, VA, where he is undergoing the discernment process for holy orders.

View more from Russell Vick

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