The Collar and Holy Sonnet

In both ‘The Collar’ and ‘Holy Sonnet’, the poets discuss problems they have with God. In ‘The Collar’. George Herbert appears to resolve this problem. In ‘Holy Sonnet’, however, no solution seems to be reached within Donne, and to solve his problem he needs God’s help. In the very title of his poem Herbert puts forward his problem with God; the poem is called ‘The Collar’, suggesting restraint and a lack of freedom. This title could also be interpreted as ‘choler’, which means anger. Anger defines the mood of Herbert’s poem up until the last few lines.

It is unclear, however, whether the majority of Herbert’s frustration is directed at himself or at God, as throughout the poem he is addressing himself. Donne, on the other hand, is addressing God and asking God for help. This suggests that whilst Donne’s problems are causing him to plead with God and ask for help. Herbert is turning away form God and trying to help himself, although ultimately he does find his solution in his love for God. Contextually this is significant because while Donne rose to great heights with the church and was very successful Herbert remained a country vicar all his life.

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This would suggest that Donne’s passion and aggressive attitude towards his religion won more favour with his superiors than Herbert’s passiveness and will to submit. This also explains why Herbert would be frustrated at not having any reward for his religious faith, and perhaps even why Donne feels he is getting everything too easily. Throughout his poem Herbert repeats the phrase ‘I will abroad’, the phrase in itself emphasising Herbert’s wish to leave the constrictions of God. The repetition accentuates his determination to do this and to do it alone.

Donne instead uses language like ‘I… labour to admit you… to no end. ‘ Donne is attempting to be close to God but God needs to reciprocate this. Donne is self-pitying, and sees no fault in himself or the way he is communicating with God and wants God to change, but Herbert is determine to change the way he himself is acting. This difference is again highlighted in the opening to each poem. Herbert talks about striking the table and exclaiming, he says ‘shall I ever sigh and pine? ‘. This conveys his frustration with the way his religion is treating him and the way he is accepting it.

Donne, however, asks God to ‘batter my heart’, and uses lexis like ‘knock, ‘o’erthrow’ and ‘break’. These words evoke imagery of rough and forceful handling; the word ‘o’erthrow’ suggest Donne wants to be taken over by God. This all conveys how he wants God to be more rough and forceful. Herbert opens with an apparently new self-confidence whereas Donne opens with a plea to God and almost begging Him. This again shows how whilst Herbert wishes to get away from God and be in control of his own life, Donne wants exactly the opposite. Both poets have problems in that they are not getting what they want from God.

Herbert expresses his wish to be ‘free as the rode, loose as the winde,’ and says also ‘shall I still be in suit? ‘, projecting his wish to no longer be dependent on God. Donne also is not getting what he wants from God; he needs God to ‘seeke to mend’, suggesting that he feels as if God is holding back. He proclaims ‘reason, your viceroy in mee, mee should defend’. This shows that he feels reason should help him on behalf of God but he also need’s God’s direct help. This aspect shows a similarity between the two poems because neither poet feels that he is getting what he wants from God.

In a sense the poets want opposite treatment from God, in that Herbert wants independence from God while Donne wants to depend on Him. Herbert’s main frustration seems to stem from what he feels is lost labour in God’s name. He feels he has gained nothing from his religion, saying ‘no harvest but a thorn to let me bloud… not restore what I have lost with cordiall fruit? ‘. The pain caused by his work and the fact that he is never reaping the benefits angers him. This point is emphasised again when Herbert says ‘have I no bayes to crown it? ‘.

The bay leaves symbolise triumph, but Herbert has encountered no triumph to show for his efforts. He feels he has worked to help others but has never helped himself. HE continues to muse on this point with ‘but there is fruit, And thou hast hands’. Herbert feels he can take control; he can pick the fruit and does not need to be given it. This concept of ‘fruit’ being taken against God’s will, could be likened to the Bible story of Adam and Eve. Donne also feels that he is being cheated out of something; addressing God with ‘I love you, and would be lov’d faine’.

Donne feels that he loves God but God does not love him back. Both are frustrated by the lack of return they are getting from God for their work. Both also feel that they must break from current bonds to achieve what they want. Donne says that he is betroth’d unto your enemie. Divorce mee,’. Donne feels the devil taking him and thinks he must belong completely to God to escape Satan. Donne feels that God must separate him from the devil. Herbert feels that the churches’ bonds he felt were so strong are weak enough for him to escape; he says ‘Thy rope of sands… made to thee Good cable… while thou didst wink’.

He feels he had his eyes closed to other opportunities and did not see that the bonds tying him to the church were frail. Both poets feel they have bonds they need to free themselves from in order to get what they want from God. Herbert laments his lost opportunities once more when he says ‘there was wine before my sighs did drie it’. Herbert addresses himself throughout the poem whereas Donne addresses God, and this is again apparent when Herbert says ‘He that forbears to… serve his need, deserves his load’. Herbert feels that his woes with his religion are due to his own refusal to serve himself.

There is a strong element of self-blame in Herbert’s writing, however, in Donne’s poem he places the blame for his problems solely on God. Towards the end of both poems the poets build up a crescendo of their feelings towards God. In Herbert’s case this is a crescendo of fury, one that he admits to himself when he says ‘as I… grew more fierce’ and the pace of his poem quickens. Herbert’s anger has been building up throughout the poem and towards the end it appears that it will reach a climax. With Donne, however, this crescendo is more a build up of his begging and his pleas to God.

He uses paradoxes to express his desire for God to be more forceful with him, for example when he says ‘except you enthral me, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish me’. Donne is saying that he cannot be free until imprisoned by God, that he needs God metaphorically to rape him, to force entry to his soul. This mixture of feelings from Donne could also be seen as anger with God for not giving him what he wants. In these last two lines of Donne’s poem the rhyming pattern changes due to it being a sonnet; there is an octave of rhyming couplets and then four lines of rhyming pattern ABCB and a final rhyming couplet.

This change means that there is extra emphasis on the ending of Donne’s poem where he tries to convince God of his need to be dominated by using paradoxes. Despite this, Donne does not appear to have reached a solution to his problems with God. He is still pleading with God even at the very end of his poem, which accentuates the fact that he needs God’s intervention in order to solve his problems within his religion. Herbert, on the other hand, does appear to reach a solution to his problems.

At the end of his poem as he is describing how he grew more and more angry with God, he writes ‘I heard one calling… and I reply’d, My Lord’. He always comes back to his faith even after he has found such anger with it. This could be seen as Herbert never really doubting his faith, but instead only trying to convince himself that he didn’t need it and stopping at the smallest intervention from God. It could alternatively be seen as an added frustration for Herbert as yet again he has failed to escape God, however, the tone of the poem suggests that this is not the case.