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December 2, 2009

Spiritual Confict in Herbert’s Poems


The metaphysical style is perhaps the most original and outlandish poetic tendency of the 17th century. John Donne was the first of the metaphysical poets and the one who did most to influence the others. Among the most important of Donne’s followers, George Herbert is distinguished for his carefully constructed religious lyrics, which strive to express with personal humility the emotions appropriate to all true Christians. He was the most simplest and direct of the sacred metaphysical poets. He does not have Donne’s intensity of emotion or his subtle and penetrating mind. Whatever poetic excellence we get in Herbert’s poetry is due to the conflict in his mind – between his spiritual attainment and secular desires which he could never remove from his mind altogether. In most of his poems he has made a frank confession of his spiritual strivings against the worldly desires which he experienced during the priesthood.

It was after much hesitation that Herbert abandoned his worldly ambitions and decided to become a priest. But even after having become a cleric he was unable to devout himself whole-heartedly to the service of god. His  hesitant mind was always wavering between the worlds of civil life and the religious life. Herbert’s civil life was direct opposite to his priestly life. The civil life was full of freedom and comfort, whereas the priestly life was full of responsibility and restraints. Thus it was that sharp contrast between the two antithetical lifestyles which was largely responsible for his spiritual conflict or inconstancy of mind.

Herbert’s spiritual conflict found its greatest expression in his emotionally volatile poem The Collar. The poem, in its entirety, is a magnificent encapsulation of the rebellious feelings that arouse in Herbert’s heart against his priestly vocation, and his victory over those feelings. Herbert is impatient with the restraints of his priestly life and feels a strong urge to escape from their clutches. He says that he would no longer continue with his life of slavery and that he would give up his priesthood in order to enjoy freedom of life. He feels that accepting priestly vacation was a foolish step. He regrets that his priest life was nothing but loss of his precious moments. Then he becomes optimistic and says that it’s not too late, there is still time for him to enjoy the pleasures which he sacrificed. He can compensate himself for that lost time by enjoying twice the number pleasures which he might otherwise have enjoyed. He should no longer get entangled in considerations of what is right and what is wrong. He must get out of the confinement of the priestly life in which he has been living. He should no longer subject himself strictly to the laws of conduct. In this way the poet is tempted to discard all fears and throw off all restraints and responsibility of priestly life. But when his rebellion against God has reached its climax and he is about to break away from the tyranny of a religious life, he hears the voice of God, which instantly prevents him from taking that rash decision. He then ends the restlessness of his mind by completely surrendering his soul to God:

But as I rav'd and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thought I heard one calling, Child!
And I reply'd, My Lord.

Thus the conflict ends in Herbert’s Reconciliation with God and in his overcoming those thoughts which troubled his mind.
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