What is the theme of "The Forerunners," a poem by George Herbert?
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.
But must they have my brain? Must they disparkThose sparkling notions, which therein were bred?Must dullness turn me to a clod?Yet have they left me, Thou art still my God.
Good men ye be, to leave me my best room,Ev’n all my heart, and what is lodgèd there.
Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?
I pass not, I, what of the rest become,So Thou art still my God be out of fear.
Go, birds of spring: let winter have his fee;Let a bleak paleness chalk the door,So all within be livelier than before.
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) -
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: