A Mount of Vision--Henry Vaughan

Critic: George MacDonald
Source: "A Mount of Vision--Henry Vaughan," in England's Antiphon, Macmillan & Co. Publishers, 1868, pp. 251-79. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27.
Author Covered: Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

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Essay | Source Citation
[A Scottish man of letters, MacDonald was a key figure in shaping the fantastic and mythopoeic literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such novels as Phantastes (1858) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872) are considered classics of fantasy literature. These works have influenced C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other seekers of divine truth, adventure, and escape from mortal limitations. During his long, prolific career, MacDonald also wrote in several other genres, achieving particular success with his novels of British country life. In the following excerpt from his England's Antiphon (1868), he offers an overview of Vaughan's career, focusing upon the mystical, the naturalistic, and the child-centered elements in the poetry, and comparing Vaughan's work to that of George Herbert and William Wordsworth.]

Henry Vaughan belongs to the mystical school, but his poetry rules his theories. You find no more of the mystic than the poet can easily govern; in fact, scarcely more than is necessary to the highest poetry. He develops his mysticism upwards, with relation to his higher nature alone: it blossoms into poetry. His twin-brother Thomas developed his mysticism down-wards in the direction of the material sciences--a true effort still, but one in which the danger of ceasing to be true increases with increasing ratio the further it is carried....

Henry Vaughan was then nearly thirty years younger than George Herbert, whom he consciously and intentionally imitates. His art is not comparable to that of Herbert: hence Herbert remains the master; for it is not the thought that makes the poet; it is the utterance of that thought in worthy presence of speech. He is careless and somewhat rugged. If he can get his thought dressed, and thus made visible, he does not mind the dress fitting awkwardly, or even being a little out at elbows. And yet he has grander lines and phrases than any in Herbert. He has occasionally a daring success that strikes one with astonishment. In a word, he says more splendid things than Herbert, though he writes inferior poems. His thought is profound and just; the harmonies in his soul are true; its artistic and musical ear is defective. His movements are sometimes grand, sometimes awkward. Herbert is always gracious--I use the word as meaning much more than graceful.

Let any one who is well acquainted with Wordsworth's grand ode--that on the "Intimations of Immortality"--turn his mind to a comparison between that and ["The Retreat"]: he will find the resemblance remarkable. Whether "The Retreat" suggested the form of the "Ode" is not of much consequence, for the "Ode" is the outcome at once and essence of all Wordsworth's theories; and whatever he may have drawn from "The Retreat" is glorified in the "Ode." Still it is interesting to compare them. Vaughan believes with Wordsworth and some other great men that this is not our first stage of existence; that we are haunted by dim memories of a former state. This belief is not necessary, however, to sympathy with the poem, for whether the present be our first life or no, we have come from God, and bring from him conscience and a thousand godlike gifts.--"Happy those early days," Vaughan begins: "There was a time," begins Wordsworth, "when the earth seemed apparelled in celestial light." "Before I understood this place," continues Vaughan: "Blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realized," says Wordsworth. "A white celestial thought," says Vaughan: "Heaven lies about us in our infancy," says Wordsworth. "A mile or two off, I could see his face," says Vaughan: "Trailing clouds of glory do we come," says Wordsworth. "On some gilded cloud or flower, my gazing soul would dwell an hour," says Vaughan: "The hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower," says Wordsworth.

Wordsworth's poem is the profounder in its philosophy, as well as far the grander and lovelier in its poetry; but in the moral relation, Vaughan's poem is the more definite of the two, and gives us in its close, poor as that is compared with the rest of it, just what we feel is wanting in Wordsworth's--the hope of return to the bliss of childhood. We may be comforted for what we lose by what we gain; but that is not a recompense large enough to be divine: we want both. Vaughan will be a child again. For the movements of man's life are in spirals: we go back whence we came, ever returning on our former traces, only upon a higher level, on the next upward coil of the spiral, so that it is a going back and a going forward ever and both at once. Life is, as it were, a constant repentance, or thinking of it again: the childhood of the kingdom takes the place of the childhood of the brain, but comprises all that was lovely in the former delight. The heavenly children will subdue kingdoms, work righteousness, wax valiant in fight, rout the armies of the aliens, merry of heart as when in the nursery of this world they fought their fancied frigates, and defended their toy-battlements....

Many a true thought comes out by the help of a fancy or half-playful exercise of the thinking power. There is a good deal of such fancy in ["The Night"], but in the end it rises to the height of the purest and best mysticism. We must not forget that the deepest man can utter, will be but the type or symbol of a something deeper yet, of which he can perceive only a doubtful glimmer....

["The Night"] is glorious; and its lesson of quiet and retirement we need more than ever in these hurried days upon which we have fallen. If men would but be still enough in themselves to hear, through all the noises of the busy light, the voice that is ever talking on in the dusky chambers of their hearts! ... I think this poem grander than any of George Herbert's. I use the word with intended precision. [Consider also "The Dawning,"] the end of which is not so good, poetically considered, as the magnificent beginning, but which contains striking lines throughout....

I do not think [Vaughan's] description of the dawn has ever been surpassed. The verse "All expect some sudden matter," is wondrously fine. The water "dead and in a grave," because stagnant, is a true fancy; and the "acquainted elsewhere" of the running stream, is a masterly phrase. I need not point out the symbolism of the poem.

I do not know a writer, Wordsworth not excepted, who reveals more delight in the visions of Nature than Henry Vaughan. He is a true forerunner of Wordsworth, inasmuch as the latter sets forth with only greater profundity and more art than he, the relations between Nature and Human Nature; while, on the other hand, he is the forerunner as well of some one that must yet do what Wordsworth has left almost unattempted, namely--set forth the sympathy of Nature with the aspirations of the spirit that is born of God, born again, I mean, in the recognition of the child's relation to the Father. Both Herbert and Vaughan have thus read Nature, the latter turning many leaves which few besides have turned. In this he has struck upon a deeper and richer lode than even Wordsworth, although he has not wrought it with half his skill. In any history of the development of the love of the present age for Nature, Vaughan, although I fear his influence would be found to have been small as yet, must be represented as the Phosphor of coming dawn. Beside him, Thomson is cold, artistic, and gray: although larger in scope, he is not to be compared with him in sympathetic sight. It is this insight that makes Vaughan a mystic. He can see one thing everywhere, and all things the same--yet each with a thousand sides that radiate crossing lights, even as the airy particles around us. For him everything is the expression of, and points back to, some fact in the Divine Thought. Along the line of every ray he looks towards its radiating centre--the heart of the Maker.

Source Citation: MacDonald, George, "A Mount of Vision--Henry Vaughan," in England's Antiphon, Macmillan & Co. Publishers, 1868, pp. 251-79. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27.