George Herbert – “The Forerunners”, “Discipline”

“The Forerunners” begins with an extended metaphor of king’s forerunners, marking the doors of the house where the king’s retinue is going to be billeted with white chalk. The poet uses this image as the metaphor of his own approaching old age which marks his head with white, like the white marks on the doors. It is also going to empty his head of his all poetic skills, like the people who are forced to empty their rooms for the uninvited house guests. Taking into account that the poor Herbert died before forty, I think his fears about his impending dementia were much too premature, unless his TB was taking its toll on his brain as well. The poet chides his poetic talent, saying it was ready to serve him in “stews and brothels” (well, well, well) and now, when he washed it with his tears of repentance and brought it to serve God, it is ready to leave him and instead be employed by some frivolous love poetry. But the speaker does not mind, because the harbingers of old age left him one room in the house of his intellect, which is the simple sentence “Thou art still my God”. If he has it, he does not mind losing all the embellishments of language.

“Discipline” is a deceptively simple poem with very short lines, in which the speaker begs God to “throw away his rod” and not to punish him. He declares his complete subjection unto God – there are no words he can speak but those in “the book”, which refers obviously to the Bible, but also to “the playbook”, the script used by actors. Instead of his wrath, God should use love, which will make even “stony hearts” bleed. The love which inspired Jesus to make his sacrifice and brought him so low, must also work on the poet. The poem ends with a repetition of the first stanza with slight alterations, again imploring God to “throw away his wrath” and have mercy on man’s frailties.

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