The Seventh Seal and the Poetry of George Herbert
George Herbert’s seventeenth century works consist of extremely devoted Christian poetry. The exception to these themes is his poem, “The Collar,” in which a priest questions God and expresses frustration with his line of work. This anomaly in an otherwise heavily religious canon of poems is similar to Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. Both “The Collar” and The Seventh Seal share similarities in their representations of lost faith.
Like Herbert’s era, the post-Crusades period, as portrayed in The Seventh Seal, is characterized by a very Christian populace. This makes the inquisitive, skeptical knight Antonius Block the outsider in his realm. Like the disillusioned speaker of “The Collar,” who wonders “Is the year only lost to me? / Have I no bays to crown it, / No flowers, no garlands gay?” Antonius questions the justice of the universe after experiencing an unhappy life (Herbert 1720). This can be seen when Antonius talks to Death in the church confession booth, as he poses philosophical religious problems. Also, Antonius enters into a religious dialogue with a doomed child.
One of the notable symbols of the “The Collar” is the “death’s-head” on the priest’s desk (Herbert 1721). The skull on his desk would have been a well-known memento mori, or a reminder of death. Images of death (in several aspects) appear throughout The Seventh Seal. The most obvious representation is the personification of death himself, who plays chess with Antonius. Also, one of the entertainer characters wears a skull mask as part of his act. When not in use, the skull mask sits outside his wagon, acting as another memento mori. These images of death are similar to the memento mori in “The Collar” because both works use imminent death to create a sense of urgency in one’s quest for spiritual meaning and fulfillment. We get the feeling that Antonius must find the answers to his personal spiritual issues quickly because the threat of illness and death surround him constantly.
“The Collar” ends with an unexpected expression of faith on the part of the speaker. Herbert writes, “But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Methoughts I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied, My Lord” (1721). This ironic ending is, ultimately, a proclamation of faith, because the speaker still believes in God in spite of his problems. In an interesting moment near the end of The Seventh Seal, Antonius prays to God to help him with his loss of faith. This is an ending as equally ironic as the closing lines of “The Collar.” Both the speaker of “The Collar” and Antonius are rectifying their atheist crises by talking to God.
Both works are similar in terms of their antiquated settings of pre-modern England, but George Herbert’s “The Collar” and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal are surprisingly comparable because of their themes of religion, death, and atheism.
Bergman, Ingmar. The Seventh Seal. AB Svensk, 1957. Film.
Herbert, George. “The Collar.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012. 9th Ed. 1720-1721. Print.
(Image courtesy of https://www.criterion.com/films/173-the-seventh-seal)