The Poisoned Grove
P. W. THOMAS
A. James Shirley & the Portuguese Ambassador
On 26 March 1653, over a decade on from the last masque performed at the Court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria the Portuguese Ambassador to Republican Britain was entertained with—of all things—a masque.(1) Where now, we may wonder, were those objections to the Court (its politics, its pictures, its patronage, and its rituals) that had played no little part in the propaganda war of the 1640’s? The wheel, it seems, had come full circle. And, indeed, the Rump Parliament had turned out to be no very revolutionary regime: it had, rather, made republican government, de facto, tolerable to many—even come to be seen as the upholder of law and order, a bulwark against lurking radicalism. Not least, it had, enhanced England’s international prestige in an immensely successful war.”(2) What more natural then, though there may have been little public enthusiasm for the return of monarchy, than to turn to the old time-honoured ways when it came to welcoming and sweetening a European ambassador? What other fitting ceremonials were to hand? Staging a show was the way to compliment and court the visitor.
Oliver Cromwell himself, typically circumspect about his fellow Army officers’ republican zeal, had ventured in 1651 to “think, if it may be done with safety, and preservation of our Rights, both as Englishmen and Christians, that a Settlement with somewhat of Monarchical power in it would be very effectual.” He stops well short of Leviathan-like absolutism! In the end, of course, as Protector he would adopt a style (especially in dealing with foreign princes and potentates) decidedly regal. He would not flinch from appearing as Caesar on the coinage; he exchanged portraits with foreign rulers; when the old Royal collection of pictures was put up to auction he kept back Raphael’s “Cartoons” and Mantegna’s “Triumph of Caesar” canvasses for the use of the State; he received overseas plenipotentiaries in style in the Rubens-adorned Banqueting House. He was, moreover, fond of music; and his Court turned out to be, albeit not lavish, far from a dull and dour place.(3)
Back in March 1653 neither Oliver nor the moderate Rumpers in the ascendancy would have felt uncomfortable with Shirley’s show. Cromwell was, however, about to be gripped by one of those bouts of millenarian enthusiasm he was subject to. On April 20 of that year he summarily dispatched the Rump, wryly remarking that its demise roused “not so much as the barking of a dog.” Now moderate opinion was alarmed: the Army’s violation of the privileges of Parliament was much resented; and when the Barebones Parliament assembled in July the presence of Fifth Monarchists and assorted (but well-organised) radical sectaries at the centre of power made many shudder. Cromwell, on the other hand, had the bit between his teeth: at the opening of the new Parliament on July 20, 1653, he rejoiced I never looked to see such a day as this . . . when Jesus Christ should be so owned as He is, at this day. . . this may be the door to usher in the things that God has promised which have been prophesied of . . .” Apocalyptic expectations were never far off in the 1640’s; and after the execution of the King in 1649 the air was thick with them. The Barebones’ radicals, however, were threatening to go too far and too fast for the more moderate members. Before long even Oliver had had enough of them; and on December 12, 1653 his troopers unceremoniously turfed them all out and ushered in not the thoroughgoing theocracy some longed for but the Protector’s five-year reign. Such were the turbulent, unpredictable, apprehensive, expectant times which drove Henry Vaughan to produce his most original and potent poetry.
We must turn back from that prospect, however, to the Portuguese Ambassador, waiting to be entertained. He was about to witness a masque on the theme—a tale like some his national poet, Calderon, had handled—of Cupid and Death.(4) In England this curious story had been rehearsed in John Ogilby’s 1651 edition of Aesop’s Fables. James Shirley had penned some commendatory verses for that, and subsequently (perhaps in the same year) reworked Ogilby’s version of the Cupid myth for a private production, probably by schoolboys where he taught in Whitefriars. In 1653 it came in handy again, at a moment when negotiations were afoot which would lead to the signing of a Treaty of Peace and Alliance between Cromwell and the King of Portugal in 1654. This performance may not have been a State occasion, but it carried public, political implications. The mixture of stateliness and broad comic humour, in a tale of reconciliation and apotheosis after deadly hostilities and cross-purposes, was decidedly á propos. Shirley, like Cowley and Davenant in the 1650’s anxious for rapprochement with the powers-that-be, struck the right note. He was, after all, an old hand at the game. His Triumph of Peace, produced by the Inns of Court in 1634, was one of the most spectacular and expensive of Caroline masques—and brilliantly successful in soothing royal feathers ruffled by William Prynne’s attacks in Histriomastix.(5) Two decades on, however, extravagant pageants were not the order of the day; and Shirley’s new masque was an altogether more modest affair, and more troubled too.
The story Shirley uses harks back to the pagan theme of Amor as God of Death. Renaissance moralising may have dissolved the primitive/attavistic idea of a marriage between Death and Love; but the ancient appercus survived in the fable of Love and Death exchanging their arrows (in this case under the influence of drink) so that young people die and the old fall in love with each other. Thus, armed unawares with Death’s ebon dart Love slays its own; and Death, wielding Love’s golden arrow, procures (in spite of himself) amours among the elderly. As Ogilby’s version of this tragi-comedy of errors puts it, Cupid unwittingly storms “with deadly arrows myrtle groves”, where traditionally lovers would wander amorously hoping to encounter their loves. Youth, spotting the terrible mistake, urges Cupid to “See in the Groves what slaughter thou hast made.”
Shirley simply amplified this story, adding apes, satyrs, Folly and Madness and (by way of comic relief) the figure of Despair who ludicrously proves incapable of hanging himself. He also makes Death, who is female in Ogilby, a man. Finally he conjures up, from the old mode and myths, Mercury as deus ex machina to correct and compensate for the deadly topsyturvydom. So the piece moves from opening bucolic knockabout, through tragi-comic central action, to operatic, triumphal close. We pass en route from Inn Yard to Formal Park to Paradise. The end, looked at one way, is too good to be true—witness the presence, especially in the central section, of images imprinted by Civil War. Nature’s warning that “Love that should preserve . . . Is now become your enemy” echoes that world of tangled and divided loyalties; the picture of a garden “Designed to be a grave” remembers damage done; the image of lovers lying dead and bleeding in once pleasant places revisits real scenes of death and destruction. “Now see”, says Memory to mischievous Cupid, “Now see in every grove/ What slaughter thou hast made.” And Nature itself “grows stiffe with horror of this spectacle”. Shirley, though he necessarily contrives to turn the whole thing round into a kind of joke, recollects a fallen, bloodstained landscape. But the bloodshed was no joke, and all too recent reality more than matched the masquing scene.
There is no more authentic image of the Civil War felt on the pulse than George Wither’s Campo Musae (6) of 1643; no starker picture of his “Destructive Times”; nor any more moving lament for the “pleasant arbours, hackt and hewed”:
Through Walks and Fields which I have visited
With peacefull Mates, and free from fear of harmes;
Yea there, where oft Faire ladies I have led,
I now lead on, a Troupe of men in Armes.
In Meadows where our sports were wont to be
(And where we playing wantonly have laine)
Men sprawling in their blood, we now do see:
Grim postures, of the dying, and the slaine.
Wither had cherished the pastoral world and mode in Jacobean times, and lived to have his estate plundered, and to fight back. So Arcadian England, the place which for generations of writers underwrote their classical recyclings, that real and imagined place which had helped define a nation’s and its literature’s sense of identity, was literally desecrated. Real fields and meadows, cattle and crops, copses and groves were damaged; and tens of thousands of men were killed and maimed. It was hard now to look at the land in the old way.
Less than twenty years before, George Daniel had confidently acclaimed Britain as a “Grand and Glorious Isle”, green and blessed—a garden redeemed from history.(7) Nor was this merely insular indulgence: generations of European visitors, taken with the temperate climate and lush fertility of the land, saw it as something special, set apart.(8) Little wonder that Thomas Carew, at court, rejoyced in the 1630’s that poets and their muses were truly at home in the land of “Peace and Plenty”, in the “myrtle bowers” where Daphne sings “Sweet odes of love, such as deserve the bays.”(9) The King’s Arcadia, despite noises off, was in his mind a safe haven. Within a decade all that was done for. War had scarred the scene; regicide turned the world upside-down.
Shirley’s post-war masque seeks healing and reconciliation: moral didacticism (apt in a schoolboy entertainment) and a broad Christian piety are offered as a way out of muddle, fanaticism, and self-slaughter. So the final scene restores “the blessed Elysian Grove”. Here, “where an eternal spring of love/Keeps each beauty fair”, the slain lovers are resurrected, enthroned in glorious seats and habits. “These shades/No chill dew or frost invades.” Here is Arcadia Rediviva, but out of this world. Shirley did his best to dust down the shaken images and motifs of Caroline masque and pastoral; and it is eloquently enough and entertainingly done. But in truth he was rehearsing a culture that no longer had power behind it: it had lost its roots. The action of the masque cannot, in the end, quite carry conviction. For Britain in 1653 was no longer ruled by a sacred monarchy, a Carlo-Maria presiding over a Court of Love and Beauty. As for Cupid, he is banished
From every palace; . . .
. . . Love rnust no more
Appear in princes courts; their heart,
Impenetrable by thy dart
And from softer influence free,
By their own wills must guided be.
Enter Machiavelli’s Prince! Shirley’s reformed ruler is an altogether Cromwellian figure: he matches the man of action drawn in Marvell’s Horatian Ode. He is “war and fortunes son”, prevailing not by divine right but by force of personality and the power of real-politik. Essentially he does not belong to the magical masquing world of yore. Shirley understood that the old order’s “dancing days are done”. His groves are mere scenery, lath-and-plaster stuff.
B. Marvell and Lovelace in Retreat
Cupid and Death was, all things considered, adroitly done. It may have enabled Shirley to shift the blame for war and death onto Cupid, even to imply thereby that it was the late Court’s fault. He manages, just about, to make the real destruction and suffering over into comic myth, acceptable to the new rulers.Yet, wittingly or not, his text registers the unease, the confusions, the disconnections, and unsettling of categories that Civil War (above all other forms of war) entailed. The more than usually abrupt transitions of the text (from comic to serious) are, not least, a sign of that disturbance.
No-one, however, articulates that world of cross-purposes and mistaken meanings more tellingly than Andrew Marvell.(10) Praising Richard Lovelace’s Lucasta in the aftermath of regicide in 1649 he reflects that “our wits” (the term indicates people as well as their faculties) have “drawne th’infection of our Times”. Destructive self-seeking and censoriousness have invaded literature; political prejudice displaces judgement; and Marvell is himself misconstrued by Lovelace’s female following as one “of the rout” of the poet’s political foes. “Mistake not” is his riposte: literary and political sympathies no longer, necessarily coincide in a nation at odds with itself. Nothing, it seems, could be straightforward any more.
There is, for all that, nothing equivocal about ‘The Nymph complaining of the death of her Faun’. Marvell unblinkingly takes the measure of the pain and poignancy of the times:
The wanton Troopers riding by
Have shot my Faun and it will dye.
The poem sustains something of the old gallantry and tenderness, even sweetness; but it registers the casual brutality, the betrayal and heartbreak of Civil War. Violence has, like it or not, altered everything.
Nowhere is safe any more. Marvell, around 1650–52, might withdraw with his great patron Lord Fairfax to Nun Appleton estate in Yorkshire; and the place at first glance recollects, inter alia, Thomas Carew’s country house retreats of the 1630’s. After all, “rurall Sanctuary” was a consolation in the 1640’s for many a defeated Cavalier and, in time, for disaffected Parliamentarians too. Fairfax was not alone in turning his back on public life. Yet even in retreat his “poet-in-residence” could not shake off warlike memories. In his mind he hears the Lord General’s armour “Rattling through all the Grove and Hill” at nearby Bilborough. Closing his eyes he sees “Groves of Pikes . . . , And Mountains rais’d of dying Men.” Recollecting Eden,
. . . that dear and happy isle
The garden of the world ere while,
Thou Paradise of four seas
he reflects that it was, after all, only mortal and has been laid “waste”. True, Fairfax’s gardens were not, like the gentleman’s at Acton on 1643, ripped up by vandalising soldiers “to the ruin of Art and Nature”.(11) But they were “warlike”, laid out in the “figure of a fort”; and in the meadows a mower’s scythe sheds real blood, “massacring” the harmless rail. The poet, retreating discomforted to the sanctuary of the wood where “arching Boughs unite between/ The Columnes of the Temple green”, moves among the trees in antic cope “like some great prelate of the Grove”. He cuts a Druidic figure, only to turn in a twinkling from priestly pose to “languishing with ease”—note the participle. He does not, however, fall asleep sated, but is transformed into a sniper galling the “Horsemen all the day.” There is no getting away from war. Nor can he linger in the grove: as night fails he emerges heading not for Elysium but the safety of his patron’s house. His concluding “Let’s in” reverberates, some think, with millenarian commitment: others detect, instead, a characteristic caution, playing tongue-in-cheek on that kind of visionary call to action. Looked at one way it incites to engagement; looked at the other (and either way the injunction is typically practical) it suggests a safe retreat. The double vision is very Marvellian.
Richard Lovelace’s Aramantha. A Pastorall (which furnished Marvell with the tour-round-the-estate programme of ‘Upon Appleton House’) is less hard-headed, more perplexed.(12) We are led into a “well-ordered stately grove;/. . . the Pallace of the Wood,/ and Court oth’ Royall Oake.” It is a place “of Bards devices and Druids rite”, of “inspired” music, and delight which sates the “Soul and Appetite.” And Aramantha, fleeing man’s inhumanity to man, seeks refuge here and, duly sated, falls asleep. A man’s voice rouses her, a “sudden Crie” and bitter groan, a trembling, complaining, and lamenting voice. Half asleep the exhausted heroine dozes off once more, only to be startled awake by a yet more vehement cry:
Blast all their roots, . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Poyson the budding branch in’s prime
Waste the proud Bowers of the Grove
That Fiends may dwell in it, and move
As in their proper Hell.
For the amorous Druids, jealous of the lovers, have kidnapped the young Alexis’s Lucasta, steeped her in “the hallowed brook/ Which from her human nature tooke”, and ravished her to Heaven as “a sacrifice to the gods”. The swain is beside himself with grief. Calm down, is Aramantha’s advice: “this holy Rape/ becomes the Gods”. And so, to cut a long story short, the bereaved youth, to his amazement, finds his “Lucasta in the Nymph” Aramantha after all. “And now they gaze, and sigh, and weep” until she tells him the story of how she “fled to this yet living Wood” from the “sad storm of fire and blood.” Their grove proves, after all, a safe haven, a place of peace and fulfilment. Alexis hangs up his arms and breaks his sword, folds his ensign, and settles for a shepherd’s life: Aramantha/Lucasta’s “peacefull Cave” will serve as “their Bridall-bed and grave”. So the poem withdraws into pastoral erotic fantasy.
In Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ of 1650 precisely the opposite is the order of the day:
The forward youth that would appear
Must now forsake his muses dear,
Nor in the shadows sing
His numbers languishing.
It is time to be done with dalliance, and bid groves goodbye. Something more bracing is called for. Cromwell is about to march for Scotland. Any youth eager for fame and fortune must “leave the Books in dust”. The world of private study, of shadows and love-songs is a debilitating dream after all. Marvell’s ambitious young man must turn his back on heavy-breathing Alexis’s life of amorous escape. He must reverse the gestures of Aramantha and
. . . oil the unused armour’s rust:
Removing from the wall
The corslet of the hall.
His destiny is to follow the “restless Cromwell” who cannot “cease/In the inglorious Arts of Peace.” So Marvell brushed aside a defeated politics and its poetic fictions.
C. John Hall of Durham’s Démarche
In 1650 the most famous forward youth of his generation—John Hall of Durham whom Marvell may have had in mind—made good the poet’s words. He marched off in Cromwell’s train to Scotland. His duty was to write not fight: war-reporting and propaganda, not numbers languishing, were his metier now. In fact Hall had tired of literary dalliance as early as 1646/7. When he published his volume of essays, Hierocles, in 1646 James Howell, author of Dodona’s Grove, warned the nineteen-year-old prodigy to apply himself to “the most solid . . . sort of studies” in Mathematics, Logic, and Natural Philosophy. Keep poetry for playtime was his advice. The following year Hall published his Poems. But he had not forgotten Howell’s counsel: his Preface contrives to be simultaneously proud and dismissive of his own efforts in amorous and satiric vein. Having shown his paces in fashionable verse, he makes no bones about it—“I intend no more.” And in a verse “Recantation” at the end of his secular poems (the rest of the volume is made up of divine verses) he vows he will no longer “deifie/A failing beauty, Idolize an eye.” Henceforth he will be “Renegado to all Poetry”:
I will no more range sullen Groves, to lie
Entombed in a shade.
In fact, other poems did follow—notably that batch of devotional pieces in the same volume; a long (lost) poem about Chemistry written in Spenserian stanzas; and an ambitious scheme for a Utopian Commonwealth in the form of a verse romance which also went missing when Hall lent the unfinished manuscript to a friend who neglected to return it.(13) But essentially, as the subject-matter of those lost items suggests, he kept his vow; and a private letter of January 25, 1647, voicing his fear that his fanciful poems might prove “Aeternall Monuments of my Folly”, amply confirms that he meant what he said. The eagerness of this brilliantly precocious, restless, pushy young man to serve the “Public Interest” in more modern literary and practical ways rings like a clarion-call through his private correspondence.(14)
So John Hall, siezed by the radical impetus of the moment, changed direction after his 1647 volume. Turning his back on the world of Cavalier fashion, still being assiduously promoted by the Royalist publisher Humphrey Moseley, he put his shoulder to the wheel of Samuel Hartlib’s visionary scheme for political and scientific innovation. He threw himself into the task of translating and securing translations of reformist texts and seeing them through the press; he wrote influential pamphlets of his own; and in due course he served, like Milton, as salaried apologist for the Commonwealth. Mid-century crisis meant, for the alarmingly forward youth, “Good-riddance groves.”
D. Henry Vaughan: the Grove Recovered
Henry Vaughan’s withdrawal to Wales seems to signify precisely the opposite. True, like Hall’s 1647 publication, Vaughan’s Poems of 1646 offer his readers a mixture of amorous, Platonic pastoral and satiric and convivial verses; his Preface’s urbanity too, like Hall’s though less tart, bears the Cavalier stamp; there is even a defiant, impatient note (not altogether unlike Hall’s) in Vaughan’s refusal to answer carping critics who disapprove of his revelling amidst “the Dregs of an Age”. The unease is unmistakable. Nevertheless Vaughan, unlike Hall, has no intention of abandoning his muses dear. Indeed, he contrives to defend languishing: “Languescente seculo, liceat aegrotari”, “When the whole world is languishing one may be permitted to be sick”. The poet confesses his book’s untimeliness; but he publishes all the same.(15) He is (though Moseley was not his publisher in 1646) all for the campaign to keep the old flag flying.
So we find him back in Wales, serenading his Amoret and descanting at the volume’s close ‘Upon the Priory Grove, His Usual Retirement’ where first they met. Vaughan conjures a familiar scene of “sacred shades”, echoing with Philomel’s song, amorous sunbeams playing in the shadows, and gentlest rain falling on the flowers. It must, in the way of nature, decay “with the consuming years”; but the poet imagines it “transplanted” - “A fresh grove in the Elysian Land.” And there “in thy shades, as now, so then” he and his love will “kiss, and smile, and walk again.” We are back, first sight suggests, in Shirley’s “blessed . . . Grove”, that fabulous, far-fetched place where love and beauty spring eternal. We have been transported from the opening invocation of place, via the charm-like incantation against all things melancholy, sad, fatal, poisonous and false, to this prospect of paradise restored. The idyll of innocence and love prevails. Yet it is not quite Shirley: this grove was, and is, a real place where two lovers met to “kiss, and smile, and walk”: and even in Vaughan’s “Elysian Land” the ordinary, everyday, domestic scale of life in Breconshire is touchingly honoured. Still, it is as though the poet, returning to Wales, dreamed awhile that he had stepped back into Arcadia.
A less secure prospect confronts the reader in Olor Iscanus, published in 1651 though much of it was written earlier. The opening poem to the River Usk, ushered in by the recollection of “Daphne’s lover”, Apollo, followed by the prayer “May vocal groves grow there”, suggests the conventional, unsullied sylvan scene—the sort of image Moseley, his publisher this time round, was keen to cultivate. This is the longed-for “land redeemed from all disorders!” At the close, too, the collection moves back (for much has happened in between) into hopeful pastoral: the Usk reappears to console “the unvisited woods and the voiceless grove”; and Echo is assured that, if she will grant the poet “the key to these pathless tracts of remote woodland, where no ax has sounded”, her realms may “flourish . . . with perpetual youth.”
In between, however, harsh notes are heard: disorder is not to be denied; the idyll proposed is repeatedly interrupted by images of death and violent upheaval. Like the nation, the volume is “fragmented”. Here lies ‘Mr. R. W Slain in the Late Unfortunate Differences at Rowton Heath, near Chester, 1645’; here ‘Mr. R. Hall slain at Pontefract, 1648’; here stands ‘An Epitaph Upon the Lady Elizabeth, Second Daughter to His Late Majesty’ who died in 1650. And in the translations of Casimir’s Odes
. . . the world
Is all to piece-meals cut, and hurled
By factious hands.”
(No. IV, xxviii)
Images of injury, vexation, disease and distress, of peevish weariness, rash resentments, and impatience crowd in amongst the hopes and consolations of Christian stoicism and simple rural self-sufficiency. Yet there are glimpses too of something “richer much (from death released)” that “Shines in the fresh groves of the east.” (No. III, xxiii). And though the closing prayer to Echo reverts to classic mythological mode, it is not as recessive as it may seem at first glance. Like Milton’s “tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new” it promises something different. Vaughan hears the talkative nymph moving in the depths of the grove, the “voice of the haunted glade caring to answer only the last snatches of what we sing”. He seeks something more—the key to those uninhabited, unexplored places, those pathless tracts of remote woodland where no ax has sounded.” Far from abandoning the grove and all it stands for, the poet longs to move into a space hitherto uninhabited, to venture deeper into “the perplexed windings of the place, and to the forest lairs.” Then Echo’s realm may be steeped once more in the “sacred elixir of eternal spring” and radiant, like stars “Always shining.” In the ancient woodlands and sacred glades of the Usk Valley its bard hopes to find an authentic voice and a vision to match that shining in the Eastern grove.
Like Milton refocussing and reforming Classical Epic, Henry Vaughan intends to revive and Christianise an ancient space. Indeed, by the time Olor Iscanus appeared in 1651 his “new” voice, the voice of an unequivocally redirected sensibility, had already sounded out in the first part of Silex Scintillans. We enter with this volume—not of songs but “Hymnes” dedicated to God—a transfigured landscape. Sorrow of war, a serious illness, a beloved brother’s death, George Herbert’s inspiration, and the need of Anglican Christians in the “howling wilderness” (‘Providence’) of the Interregnum had led Vaughan (convinced like Marvell and Hall of the potentially debilitating, corrupting power of poetry) away from “Idle Verse” to a different order of utterance:
O! tis an easie thing
To write and sing;
But to write true, unfeigned verse
Is very hard!
It is the difference between Salome’s bewitching arts and erotic enticements in ‘The Daughter of Herodias’ and Mary Magdalen’s un-Ovidian “art of love” (‘St. Mary Magdalen’). For she was “chang’d” by the action of a divine presence and draws others to imitate her transformation. So Vaughan draws back from amorous Platonics and second-hand pastoral—the numbers that lull readers to a lethargy.
He recalls his “Angell-infancy” before he taught his tongue “to wound/My conscience with a sinful sound” (‘The Retreat’). Now he sees clearly what happened: “I straight perceived my spring/Meere stage and show” (‘Regeneration’). So Vaughan identifies in himself—though not exclusively his—a poisonous mind-set that had helped create catastrophe. For idle words “infect whole generations”; and though “Vicious verse” was nothing new, he perceives in the recent past a culture steeped in “lascivious fictions” and given over to the pernicious fashion (Can he have Donne in mind?) of mixing things sacred with ingenious conceits. To his mind, as expressed in the 1655 Preface to the second part of Silex Scintillans, these corruptions lie at the root of the “public distractions” of the age. Now he acknowledges his own contamination in terms that repudiate his 1646 defiance: “I languished of this very sickness” is not a defence but a confession of guilt.
Vaughan’s words are not mere gesture. Palpably heartfelt, they spring from a deeply pondered and activist view of the nature of books. To write is to make for oneself another body in which one lives on; and if it is an idle book the writer “sins (after death) as fast and as foul as ever he did in his life.” So contaminated literature compounds the age’s “accounts of blood and lust.” Isolation and adversity have, however, broken Vaughan and cured him. “ What was stone, becomes flesh. Look at it broken in pieces! Look, its fragments are flashing to heaven and to you . . . By dying I have gained new life . . . “
And so in the first poem of Silex Scintillans in 1650 he walks out alone (as was his poetic and his everyday wont) into a real and redeemed, and redemptive, landscape. It is of Breconshire and the Bible; and charged both with local resonance and apocalyptic significance.
O how I long to travell back
And tread again that ancient track!
will strike a chord in anyone who has (like Vaughan) walked the Black Mountains; but the “shady city of palm trees” is certainly not Brecon—more a place that “the enlightened spirit sees.” The spring-time stroll turned by “surly winds” and storm clouds into “a monstrous, mountained thing” (‘Regeneration’) is likewise not far to seek in his county; but the pair of scales he finds on the pinnacle, and the voice that cries “Away” leading him “Full east” to a field called “Jacob’s bed” are Scriptural. Then in “A grove descried” a “new spring” greets all his senses, and in a moment of transformation the sun shoots “vitall gold/A thousand pieces”. The cistern full of divers stones he cannot decipher, the strange sights his “restless eye” takes in, and the mysterious “rushing wind” that “musing long” he hears but cannot locate—all these belong to another dimension of experience or level of perception. The poet (being of his time) may, young, have hoped to locate his poetic world in the familiar muses’ grove; but here, via the natural world, he enters a different kind of grove, sacred not to the muses but to musing. It is, so to speak, a natural and “virtual” space, a dynamic, protean, enigmatic locus of observation, meditation, and experiment. It is, from first to last, a place of process, where the poet pursues his hermetic, alchemical operations, always striving “upwards still”. Searching out his roots—Celtic, Christian and occult—he discovered that he no longer had need of Cavalier classical erotic pastoral. Indeed, that could no longer do the work.
So Vaughan moves beyond those ultimately frozen, static poses of the once fashionable mode. He even looks beyond Marvell’s changing scene, and the part-serious, part-tongue-in-cheek role-playing of ‘Upon Appleton House’. And the voice he hears at last in the depths of his primeval world -
I turned me round, and to each shade
Dispatched an eye,
To see, if any leaf had made
Least motion, or reply,
But while I listening sought
My mind to ease
By knowing, where ‘twas, or where not,
It whispered; Where I please.
—that voice is not Echo but the Holy Spirit of God. Vaughan is inspired to respond, embracing his mortality:
Lord, then said I, On me one breath,
And let me die before my death!
This sacrificial dying is, however, very different from the death through orgasm Alexis promises himself in Aramantha. If copulation of some sort is hinted at, it is of an unmistakably spiritual kind. Or, to put it in traditional terms, it is a practical mortification invoked in order to gain a new (and everlasting) life. So ‘Regeneration’ sets the scene for all that follows. It is the first of many groves—none of them, I think, sacred to the old muses—where transformations are unfurled. (16)
Silex Scintillans, the multi-faceted flint struck by darts (not of Cupid and Death but of God whose love, through death, conquers death), and shining in the dark is—to shift the metaphor again—itself a grove of leaves, of lights and shades, a sacred enclosure reverberating with voices and visions. Vaughan is quite explicit about where he stands. To “idolise some shade or grove” in the old way would be “the brains fit/And mere disease” (‘Mount of Olives I’). Repeatedly, as in ‘Rules and Lessons’, he inveighs against the “sickness” and “infection” of such “base wit”. And Silex Scintillans was offered, not least, as a therapy, a cure, an antidote to the poisons of an age of corrupted literature, corrupted religion, and corrupted politics.
My God when I walke in those groves
And leaves thy spirit still doth fan,
I see in each shade that there grows
An Angel talking with a man.
Here the “soft voice” of God can be heard, and invoked to cleanse the waters. Yet even in the grove the spring may be tainted by clamour and schism: “False echoes and confused sounds abound”. Sometimes “touched by God’s breath”, he is nonetheless still prey to ‘Disorder and Frailty’:
Each fly doth taste
Poison, and blast
My yielding leaves . . .
until not a shoot remains. The image of the poisoned grove recall’s Lovelace’s Aramantha; but where the latter issues in erotic idyll, Vaughan, struggling with a deep sense of backsliding and failure, can only manage earnest prayer. He begs that, despite his “perverse,/And foolish thoughts” and “forward sins”, God may water “the seed, the place” in him where the “bare root/Hid under ground survives the fall”; and that He may, after all, “tune” the poet’s heart and verse to His will. The possibility of regeneration, it seems, is inherent in the created world and buried somewhere in the human soul; but whether or not that new growth occurs depends absolutely on the working of God’s grace. The transformation sought (to rehearse another recurrent figure) from the dross of days to gold does not always or automatically happen.
Vaughan’s groves are anything but complacent places. They are sites of struggle and sacrifice to which he brings all his hurts and hopes—straining to catch glimpses of God’s shining in the darkness, to hear snatches of the Creator’s meaning. Not least, in writing Silex Scintillans Vaughan “came at last/To search my self “ (“Vanity of Spirit’). And there he found
Traces, and sounds of a strange kind.
Here of this mighty spring, I found some drills,
With Ecchoes beaten from the eternal hills;
Weak beams, and fires flashed to my sight . . .
We are confronted with a poet, who had been deaf and silent, learning to listen and to look. He listens to his inner voice, to the Scriptures’ words, to birdsong and all the sounds of the created world. He looks at flowers and herbs, at trees, even at stones
With hieroglyphics quite dismembered,
And broken letters scarce remembered.
‘Vanity of Spirit’
In similar vein in ‘They are all gone into the world of light’ he confesses that though an observer can know when the bird has flown the nest, “what fair well, or grove he sings in now/ That is to him unknown.” We are only in possession of part of the story: so try as he might that day the poet could not “unite those pieces” or decipher their “Mystery”. He has to accept that fallen man cannot know God or his design fully in this life: the lost recipes cannot quite be recovered.
His poetry is compounded of flashes and glimpses, of vivid dreams and gleamings, and sudden shinings, “shoots of everlastingness” (‘The Retreat’):
But life is, . . .
A quickness, which my God hath kissed.
His world vibrates with snatches of sound, with whispers, interruptions, reverberations, strange echoes and sudden exclamations:
But as I urged thus, and writ down
What pleasures should my journey crown,
. . .
Me thought I heard one singing thus . . .
. . .
But hark! what trumpet’s that? what Angel cries
Your speechless voice has tried unceasingly to bring me to my senses. Your divine breath has striven to win me over by its gentle motion, warning me in vain with sacred murmuring. I was deaf and dumb; a flint.
‘The Author’s Emblem (Of Himself)’
Like the poor birds which “sing best . . . when their nest is fall’n and broken” (‘Begging II’), adversity and pain taught Vaughan to listen for God’s voice and so to find the language he needed. Those sudden summonses, those mysterious inscriptions and intuitions are what ring—“The Word in characters, God in the voice” (‘Holy Scriptures’). Vaughan became a true poet whenaccepting that he could never altogether explain or, therefore, produce a finished utterance—he discovered his “broken stile”.
Breathings from God’s Word and from his created world are what voice Vaughan’s verse. He wishes, above all, each word of Holy Scripture to be cut in his hard heart, that he may return God’s gift to Him:
This Book, and I
Will tell thee so . . .
In ‘To the Holy Bible’, the last poem before ‘L’Envoy’ of Silex Scintillans, Vaughan bursts out:
O book! life’s guide! how shall we part,
And thou so long seized of my heart!
Take this last kiss, and let me weep
True thanks to thee, before I sleep.
Typically, the closing exclamation looks towards the unknowable, that which cannot be expressed:
The next effects no tongue can tell;
Farewell O book of God! farewell!
But which book is he thinking of—the Bible, or Silex Scintillans? Perhaps the answer is both at once. The double reference, the twinning, is hard to resist given the insistence on God as, like the poet, a “maker”; and the meditation in the previous poem on the making of ‘The Book’ could equally apply to either volume:
Thou knew’st this paper, when it was
Mere seed, and after that but grass;
. . .
Thou knew’st this tree, when a green shade
Covered it, since a cover made,
. . .
Thou knew’st this harmless beast, when he
Did live and feed by thy decree
On each green thing; then slept (well fed)
Clothed with this skin, which now lies spread
A covering o’er this aged book,
. . .
Thou knew’st and saw’st them all and though
Now scattered thus, dost know them so.
In the physical book herbs, trees, beasts, and men (all of whom Vaughan believed would be restored and made “new again” since no thing can return to nothing) are made one. True poetry, as opposed to feigned utterance, stands revealed as something that takes place where spiritual and material realities intersect and energise one another. For what was alive and is dead has already, on the way to that final resurrection, passed through a transmutation into ‘The Book’, which is both thing and poem. So in the end, the Natural World, the Word of God, and the poet’s words sound together. The bard, returning what has been given, identifies his poetry with the elemental natural and supernatural processes of the creation.
Essentially, then, the book and the grove are one. For the leaves of the book are (literally and figuratively) leaves from the trees of that real and visionary place. The closing petition of ‘The Book’ is a plea to be part of the ultimate renewal of all things, and also, perhaps, that Vaughan’s work itself may contribute to that renovation:
Give him amongst thy works a place,
Who in them loved and sought thy face!
In restoring energetic meaning to the grove, recharging the languishing image with Celtic, Druidic, Biblical, Alchemical and Therapeutic significances, Vaughan assisted in the divine work of transformation which (in the final words of Silex Scintillans) “turned our sad captivity”. The poetry of that captivity and defeat was “turned” in his pages too, to something new.