Selected Poem - 'The Forerunners'

In later life, we all have to face up to the fact that the ageing process brings changes - we slow down, become more forgetful and it is no longer possible to do many of the things we once took in our stride. For most of us, the unwelcome arrival of a few grey hairs is the first sign that old age is starting to creep up.

'The Forerunners'

THe harbingers are come. See, see their mark;
White is their colour, and behold my head,
But must they have my brain? must they dispark
Those sparkling notions, which therein were bred?
Must dulnesse 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 lodged there:
I passe not, I, what of the rest become,
So Thou art still my God, be out of fear.
He will be pleased with that dittie;
And if I please him, I write fine and wittie.

Farewell sweet phrases, lovely metaphors.
But will ye leave me thus? when ye before
Of stews and brothels onely knew the doores,
Then did I wash you with my tears, and more,
Brought you to Church well drest and clad:
My God must have my best, ev’n all I had.
Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane,
Hony of roses, whither wilt thou flie?
Hath some fond lover tic’d thee to thy bane?
And wilt thou leave the Church, and love a stie?
Fie, thou wilt soil thy broider’d coat,
And hurt thyself, and him that sings the note.

Let foolish lovers, if they will love dung,
And canvas, not with arras, clothe their shame:
Let follie speak in her own native tongue.
True beautie dwells on high: ours is a flame
But borrow’d thence to light us thither.
Beautie and beauteous words should go together.

Yet if you go, I passe not; take your way:
For, Thou art still my God, is all that ye
Perhaps with more embellishment can say,
Go birds of spring: let winter have his fee,
Let a bleak palenesse chalk the doore,
So all within be livelier then before.

Commentary

This poem is all about George Herbert coming to terms with the decline in his abilities as his health deteriorates. There can be little doubt that he aged prematurely; he was just under forty years old when he died, after a life spent struggling with illness resulting from a weak constitution and so much time living in the unhealthy fenland climate of Cambridge. Almost certainly written during his time in Bemerton, it is clearly one of the most autobiographical verses in 'The Temple'.

Herbert likens the onset of ageing to a situation that many of his readers would have known well - advance parties (forerunners or harbingers) were sent out before any royal visit to find suitable lodgings for all the accompanying servants and baggage. They would mark with white chalk the doors of the chosen dwellings, a clear sign to everyone that something was about to happen. He cleverly points out that the whitening of his hair is an equally clear indication that change is on the way.

But as his body ages and becomes weaker, Herbert struggles to retain his poetic skills ('my best room'), despite losing the sharpness of wit and fluidity of language that came so easily in his younger days. He argues that what really matters is his devotion, and his determination to keep expressing that devotion even if the 'sweet phrases' and 'lovely metaphors' no longer flow from his pen. He will be quite satisfied with expressing in a simple way the love of God that lies in his heart. He knows that God will never desert him.

 

So Herbert now turns his thoughts to the way ahead, and wonders what will happen to all those wonderful, imaginative verses ('hony of roses') that he himself will no longer be able to write. He comes back to an old theme, bemoaning the waste as he sees it of 'lovely enchanting language' on secular subjects instead of addressing religious matters; 'Beautie and beauteous words should go together', he says. Perhaps he is recalling the sonnet he sent to his mother when he was just 16 - 'Doth Poetry Wear Venus Livery?'. And actually the powerful words and phrases he employs to make the point in this poem are a pretty clear indication that his consummate skill has not deserted him just yet.

But he is resigned to the future, and claims not to care ('I passe not') that others may not devote their poetry to such a high purpose as he has always done. He argues that, as his own abilities decline to 'a bleak paleness', what burns fiercely within him will gain in depth and strength even though he may no longer be able to express it adequately. And so once again Herbert, as he does in many of his verses, comes up with an unexpected ending - change may be coming, but for the moment he is still able to 'write fine and wittie'.

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