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Herbert's "Thy Cage, Thy Rope of Sands": An Hourglass by Ronald A. Horton George Herbert's image of a "rope of sands" in line 22 of "The Collar" has a well-known history of commentary. The phrase's status as a proverbial saying was quickly established by responses to Geoffrey Tillotson's note in TLS three decades ago.1 By Herbert's time, observed F.L. Lucas, one of the responders, it was "proverbial ... for performing futile tasks."2 In "The Collar" the phrase has, I believe, an additional unnoticed signification. "Thy rope of sands" appears in grammatical apposition with "thy cage" of the preceding line: .... 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. (11. 21-26)3 The syntax couples images of enclosing posts and a restraining length of sand. Conjoined, these suggest a cage-like object with rich implications for the meaning. The hourglass was apparently in common use in Europe by the early 1300s, though indisputable evidence dates only from midfourteenth century.4 References in the fifteenth century show hourglasses dividing watches at sea and measuring intervals between hours of prayer in monasteries. But it was their use in schools and universities for timing lessons that caused the hourglass to be associated with the life of learning. As the scholar's timepiece, it became an emblem of erudition. Because of its association with time consciousness and dust, the hourglass inevitably also acquired religious associations. Hourglasses appeared as reminders of mortality in funeral garlands in churches and accompanied death's heads and skeletons as promoters of moral seriousness.5 This symbolism was well established in English poetry by Herbert's time. The hourglass measures the divinely allotted term of life in the sophistry of Despair in Book I of Spenser's Faerie Queene: 84Ronald A. Horton Die shall all flesh? what then must needs be donne, Is it not better to doe willinglie, Then linger, till the glasse be all out ronne? Death is the end of woes: die soone, O faeries sonne 6 Chidiock Tichborne, writing from the Tower before his execution in 1586, makes similar poignant use of the image: My glasse is full, and now my glass is runne; And now I hue, and now my life is done. (11. 17-18)7 In Herbert's "Church-monuments" the soul sets the flesh to its lessons before the tombs to learn its "stemme/ And true descent" (11. 17-18); the flesh is "but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time" (U. 20-21). The hourglass's associations with erudition and religious seriousness come together in Renaissance paintings of St. Jerome, as in Figure 1. Figure 1. St. Jerome by Claude Vignon. French,/?. 1600-1649. Oil on canvas, 36 by 48Vi inches. Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery Collection. A Note on "The Collar"85 These paintings typically show the scholar at his desk not only with his medieval attributes — his books, manuscript, and quill — but also with a skull and an hourglass. Associated with memento mori, the hourglass and death's head are obvious emblems of the ascetic life. The hourglass also images Jerome's scholarly distinction. To connect the cage and rope of sands with the death's head as twin emblems of studious asceticismenhances our sense of the poem's covert cohesion. "Forsake thy cage, / Thy rope of sands" and "Call in thy death's head" are paired imperatives concretely defining the second, and fiercer, section of the rebellious tirade. Whereas the interrogatives of the first section (11. 3-16) show the young speaker at a dining table rejecting its provision, the imperatives of the second section (U. 1932 ) show him at his desk resisting serious thoughts and required study. The image ofthe hourglass also may contribute to the ironic countercurrent of the poem, long a commonplace of Herbert criticism. The pressure of the divine call has been shown to be subtly but insistently figured in contradictory images of freedom and abundance and in oblique allusions to the ministerial role. We sense...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 83-88
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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