233 - Survey of British Literature 1/Fall 1999
Dr. Janet Wright Starner
Page authors: Jen Fela | Jerry Palmaioli | Lisa Shafer | Edward Stanchak |
Henry Vaughan was born in 1622 in Breconshire, Wales to Thomas Vaughan and Denise Morgan. Entering Oxford University in 1638 where he studied with his twin brother Thomas followed his Welsh childhood. In 1640 he left Oxford to study law in London for two years. It was also in London that he started his poetic apprenticeship at the Inns of Court. In 1642 he returned back to Breconshire at the onset of a Civil War. It is here that he served as secretary to the Circuit Chief Justice of the Great Sessions until 1645. At that time he joined the company of soldiers who fought for King Charles's cause with Sir Herbert Price at Chester. By 1646 it is assumed he married Catherine Wise with whom he was to have a son and three daughters. In this same year Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished, a slender volume of secular verse was published. In this book he imitated the style of Ben Jonson of whom he was a fervent admirer.
Before 1650 Vaughan's poetry was mostly secular but in the period of 1650 and the years spanning there after his poetry turned toward spiritual issues and he became known as a mystical writer. The mysticism and Neoplatonism of Vaughn's best known collection of poems, Silex Scintillans or The Fiery Flint link him to the metaphysical tradition of Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw, yet his verse continued to reflect his fondness for the wit and spareness of Jonson. The poems contained within this work express his anger and disappointment at the outcome of the Civil War. For example, within the poem In Prayer in Time of Persecution Vaughan rails against the Puritans for confiscating the woods of his family’s estate. Sometime after 1650 in additon to writing and translating works on the subject he practiced as a physician.
The following year (1651) Olor Iscanus or The
Swan of Usk was published which was a collection of secular poetry with
four prose translations. This piece was so named because of the River Usk,
which flows near his hometown. Even though it was a secular work it did
contain "rhapsodic passages about natural beauty". In 1655 Silex Scintillans
was reprinted with a second additional part. In this section he talks of
an illness he had suffered which appears to have been spiritual and may
have even been the cause of his conversion experience. In this preface
he also contributes his spiritual awakening to the poems of George Herbert.
It is definitely apparent that Vaughan's inspired religious poetry is very
reminiscent of Herbert's The Temple.
It should be noted that the 1650' s were very troubling and trying for Henry Vaughan. It is during this time that he grieved for the deaths of both his twin brother Thomas and his first wife Catherine. In 1655 it is thought that he wed his first wife's sister , Elizabeth with whom he had another son and three more daughters. He published a few more works put none could ever live up to the expectations of the Silex Scintillans. He died on April 23, 1695, and was buried in Llansantffraed churchyard.
Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy ought
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space,
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gilded cloud, or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness
O, how long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But, ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love;
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn
In that state I came, return.
In Henry Vaughan’s poem, "The Retreat," the speaker fondly recalls a time of purity and innocence. He remembers when his soul was pure and heavenly thoughts were his sole contentment. "Before I understood this place/ Appointed for my second race (3,4)" is an interesting couplet. The lines refer to the belief in reincarnation and the preexistence of the soul in perfection. The speaker longs for a return to the world of eternal perfection and purity in which his soul existed before his carnation as a mortal human.
Vaughan uses many words referring to light and dark in the poem. Some such words are shined, white, bright, shadows and black. Images of light and dark are common in the poetry of Henry Vaughan. "Light is approached, on the lateral level, as the medium of visual perception, and it becomes an entirely conventional figure indicating mental illumination or elucidation, especially regarding spiritual thing (Lemonedes, 220)." In "The Retreat", Vaughan tells of the time when enlightenment was something that was achieved without effort.
As life progresses for the speaker, who perhaps represents every human being, he begins to lose the enlightenment because of the qualities that life on Earth in a mortal body provides. "Before I taught my tongue to wound/ My conscience with a sinful sound/ or had the black art to dispense/ A several sin to every sense (15-19)," shows his progression into sin and earthly matters, and his slow separation from the bliss and peaceful contentment of his "angel infancy (2)." This theme also exists in Vaughan’s poem "Man’s fall, and Recovery."
…. I’ve lost"Vaughan states here that the flesh restricts man in his search for knowledge and obscures a degree of enlightenment the soul once enjoyed (Lemonedes, 221)." Thus, the speaker longs to return to his innocence and purity, rather than to move forward as other men love to do. He would rather retreat into innocence than proceed with knowledge.
A frame of lights, which in those Sun-shine dayes
Were my sure guides, and only with me stayes
(unto my costs,)
One sullen being, whose charge is to dispense
More punishment, than knowledge to my sense.
Vaughan’s cyclical resolution of the poem is not unlike his experiences and poems about nature. Nature is full of cycles, and Vaughan shows in "The Retreat" that life and death are just as much a past of nature as day and night and light and dark. Henry Vaughan’s poetry perhaps makes the acceptance of the cyclical nature of life a little more bearable, and in this way he most definitely enhances the literary common of his time. Vaughan’s style and metaphor is completely intertwined with his inspiration and motivation. Nature is captured through words by Henry Vaughan.
Emblem, style, and metaphor have changed dramatically over the course of time. In medieval England, symbols were biblical and poetry was merely an imitation of nature. At the end of the Restoration, symbols became idiosyncratic, poetry became a work of art through transformation, and metaphors became ingenious. "The symbols that allowed the world to be read as united in reference to God’s word in the Bible were supplemented and even challenged by new images created by poets" (Damrosch 1597).
Although he did not accompany his writing with actual pictures, Henry Vaughan used imagery and metaphors to create a mental image in the mind of the reader. Vaughan had a great feeling for nature and often geared his writing towards the idea of a spiritual paradise. Also known for his mysticism and Neoplatonistic style, Vaughan was inspired by the loving relationships he experienced throughout life, especially with God.
In Henry Vaughan’s poem, "The Retreat," the character reflects upon his/her past and his/her longing to return to it. Vaughan contrasts images of light and dark in order to separate the character’s positive memories of who he/she once was from the sinful person he/she had become. Along with contrasting these images of light and dark, Vaughan used metaphors and "stand-in" words (symbols) to describe what the character was feeling.
In line 2, Vaughan used the word angel to display youth as innocent. A white celestial thought in line 6 showed that the character’s mind (thought) was once clear and uninfluenced by anything but truth. In line 10, Vaughan referred to a glimpse of his bright face, symbolizing love and adoration of God. When he/she was naïve to the world and innocent, shadows of eternity (line 14) were attainable. But once he/she was shaped by the world’s black art (line 17), he/she lost sight of the bright shoots of everlastingness (line 20). In line 23, Vaughan described a plain. This great plain was glorious in the character’s youth and was filled with opportunities to better him/her and reach his/her spiritual paradise. But his/her soul grew drunk (line 28) and overflowed in sin.
While there is no concrete image provided by Henry Vaughan, the reader is able to envision the type of life that the character must’ve led. With his style, his precise use of metaphors, and the images (emblems) that he evokes in readers, Henry Vaughan is recognized as a great author contributing to new era of "poetic art."
Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology
of British Literature. Longman, New York:1999.
Kirkhan, Michael. "Metaphor and the Unitary World: Coleridge and Henry Vaughan" Essays in Criticism. Vol37, 1987. 121-134.
Lansing, Gerrit. "Dogma and Natural Symbol in
a Seventeenth-Century Vision: A Study of Henry Vaughan's 'Regeneration'"
Lemonedes, Joyce Elaine. "Abstract of the Dissertation "A Gracious Art": Nature in The Poetry of Henry Vaughan." Diss. S.U.N.Y. at Stony Brook, 1976.
Rudrum, Alan. "A Nautical Metaphor in Henry Vaughan's 'Cock-crowing'" English Language Notes. Vol33, 1996. 12-14.
Sandbank, Shimon. "The Sign of the Rose: Vaughan, Rilke, Celan" Comparative Literature. Vol49, 1997. 195-208.
Skulsky, Harold. "The Fellowship of the Mystery:
Emergent and Exploratory Metaphor in Vaughan" Studies in English Literature
1500-1900. Vol27, 1987. 89-107.