What is the theme of "The Forerunners," a poem by George Herbert?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The dominant theme of "The Forerunners" is the onset of old age. But as with all of Herbert's poems the ostensible theme ultimately reflects the individual believer's relationship to God. As with other Metaphysical poets, Herbert uses a conceit, an elaborate metaphor, to convey his underlying message. In this case, the approach of old age is likened to the arrival of forerunners, advance parties sent out to find suitable accommodation for a royal entourage before a visit. Once they'd found somewhere to stay, the forerunners would mark the doors of chosen properties with white chalk. Herbert compares this ritual to the little crop of white hair starting to grow upon his ageing head:

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their colour, and behold my head.
Herbert sincerely hopes that the approach of age won't rob him of his mental faculties, but if it should happen then it'll be the will of God:
But must they have my brain? Must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
Must dullness turn me to a clod?
Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
As well as his mind, Herbert desperately wants to hang on to his ability to write poetry (his "best room"), and hopes that the arrival of old age will leave it untouched:
Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there.
Yet, turning to the future, Herbert cannot help regretting the fact that there will come a time when he'll no longer be able to write poetry. After all, writing poetry is what Herbert does best, and is his most effective way to express his devotion to the Almighty:
Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?
But when all is said and done, what really matters for Herbert is his continued devotion to God. Whatever old age may bring, that's something that will never change:
I pass not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God be out of fear.
And Herbert further consoles himself with the thought that, though his ability to express his devotion to God may one day diminish, the devotion itself will not. It will continue to burn as brightly within his soul as it ever did, irrespective of age:
Go, birds of spring: let winter have his fee;
Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,
So all within be livelier than before.
Michael Otis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Herbert (1593-1633), one of the metaphysical poets, wrote quiet and precise devotional verse. "The Forerunners" is no exception. In it the poet ruminates on the coming of old age (hence the title) -

The harbingers are come. See, see their mark:
White is their color, and behold my head.

His reflections are shot through with ambivalence: He regrets that advancing age brings with it enfeeblement, the gradual loss of his ability to write poetry. Yet, at the same time, he expresses gratitude that his versifying faculty can still express the motto, "Thou art still my God". He summarizes this sentiment in the second stanza of the poem: 

Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,
Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there:   
I pass not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God be out of fear.
    He will be pleasèd with that ditty:
And if I please him, I write fine and witty.
 
The concept is found elsewhere in Herbert's poetry: The poet's ability or 'wit' does not depend on technical skill but on a "heart" subservient to God. However, the third stanza reveals that the poet is not altogether sanguine about the departure of his poetic faculties: "Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors". He laments that after having 'saved' for praise of God the "sweet phrases" and "lovely metaphors" they will, ungratefully, return to the service of secular poets. Clearly the poet still cares for beautiful and elaborate language, if only to acknowledge that "beauty and beauteous words should go together". Nevertheless, as his poetic ruminations come to an end, the poet again returns to his central theme: If anything is to be sacrificed to advaning age, let it be surface wit, not substance. George Herbert's "The Forerunners" perhaps like no other of his poems exemplifies his core belief about poetry: Brilliant poetic verse leads to sublime praise of God, but even if that brilliance is lacking, the heart of the believer can still speak eloquently.