"The Collar" by George Herbert - Biography and Analysis

Topics: Rhyme, Poetry, Edmund Spenser Pages: 8 (1573 words) Published: September 8, 2006
In George Herbert's poem "The Collar," published in The Temple (1633), the author/persona rebels against the casuistry that the Christian life imposes, only to be brought back finally into childlike submission when he hears (or thinks he hears) the "Lord's" gentle rebuke. My argument is that, astoundingly, the poem's elaborate, random-seeming rhyme scheme--itself "collar-like" because it edges the poem--encodes witty messages that force us to rethink the poem's meaning, especially its serious tone.[1]

The discovery explicated here belongs originally to Cary Ader, a Miami-Dade Community College student who proposed it in 1992 to his professor, Norbert Artzt, who passed it on to me because he knew of my investigations into runic embeddings and "suppressed design" in earlier literature. In brief, Ader detected that if one uses conventional alphabetic analysis the complex rhyme scheme of the poem ends with a "NO NO!" that sounds like a playful echo of (and gloss on) the Lord's sotto voce reprimand in the last lines of the text itself. My main contributions to Ader's findings are to propose that a second, concurrent rhyme scheme--inherent in the ambiguous phonics of the poem's endwords--yields further communication, and that the two letter codes themselves convey complex runic meanings, not just quippy one-liners.

Ader's analysis of the poem's rhyme scheme appears, (see poem page 74) in column A, mine in column B. The divergence arises from ambiguous rhyming relationships between endwords suit/fruit/dispute (lines 6, 9, 20) and drown it/crown it (12,14). As Ader correctly recognized, these endword sound groups are phonically remote; still, their "disputable" eye-rhyme linkage does permit my alternative construction. If allowed, the B rhyme scheme generates a terminal "MN MN"--a phonic string that puns insistently on "Amen! Amen!" Because "amens" conventionally close and underscore messages, these are inarguably relevant to Preacher Herbert's verse text.

To facilitate discussion, I have heightened several alphabetic strings with boldfaced type. Herbert's initial acrostic letterstring NOO (15,20-21,my emphasis) suggests that the other acrostic NO NO (33-36) that we "think we are hearing" is Herbert's authorized statement.

The whispered "No! No!" is an appropriately soft-spoken negation reprimanding a "child"; concurrently, the "Amen" is preacher talk--but not the usual shout--that affirms. Thus these juxtaposed end elements gain oxymoronic force, their witty relevance suggesting both tedious authorization and intentional duplicity.

Boldfaced strings (beginning with line 4) also heighten latent authorized letter strings that spell out BAD, DEAD, HID, and JIG--as well as a phonic version of "cabal" (KBLL) and some potential scatology (e.g., BM). A "jig"--with its playful "up-and-down" features--might also be a "joke," "trifle," or "trick" (1592) and thus a "dodge," "device," or "contrivance" (OED).

The likelihood that Herbert contrived duplicitous rhyme scheme wit in "The Collar" gains support from a parallel pattern that (following Ader's model) can be extrapolated from another of Herbert's poems, "Deniall"[3]--a stanzaic work in which "NO NOO" echoes the titular "negation":

Rhyme scheme Rhyme scheme

A B

pierce/eares/verse/fears/disorder A B A B C A B A B C

bow/asunder/go/thunder/alarms D C D C E D E D E F

say/benumme/day/come/hearing F G F G H G H G H I

tongue/thee/long/knee/hearing I J I J H J K J K I

sight/unstrung/right/hung/

Discontented K L K L M L M L M N

breast/time/request/chime/ryme N O N O O O P O P P

The rhyme scheme split as shown above, occurs because "asunder" may or may not rhyme with "disorder." This poem's rhymes are overtly playful because "disorder" is a "disorderly" nonrhyme and because "chime" and "ryme" do "chime and rhyme"--replacing disorder with formality. (The "odd-word" string reads, "Disorder alarms hearing--hearing discontented ryme.") "Ope up" (code . ....
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