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

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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. 

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