Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist

Critic: Alexander B. Grosart, Rev.
Source: "Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist," in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II, edited by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, Blackburn, 1871, pp. ix-ci. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27.
Author Covered: Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)

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Essay | Source Citation
[Grosart was a nineteenth-century English clergyman and editor of numerous collections of works by British authors from the period 1400 to 1800. He published editions of the works of Richard Crashaw, Samuel Daniel, Sir Philip Sidney, and several other literary figures. In the following excerpt from his prefatory essay in volume two of Vaughan's collected works, Grosart compares Vaughan's accomplishment favorably to that of George Herbert.]

Comparisons have been instituted between Vaughan and George Herbert of the most uncritical and baseless kind. I must frankly avow that it is a wonder to me how a mind of the insight and acumen of Dr. George Macdonald in Antiphon--where he has written so many wise and beautiful things about him--came to adjudge the Poet of The Temple a higher place qua Poet than the Silurist. With all my reverence and love for critic and subject, I must regard the verdict as a freak of judgment resting on some early (tacit) association. It is the very fantastique of criticism, as I take it, either in substance or workmanship to exalt good George Herbert above either Vaughan or Richard Crashaw. His was a lovely soul, and in his verse there is the very spicery of a sweet, gentle, innocent piety: but after all it is fragrance rather than form, flower-scent not flower-beauty. I do not find in all George Herbert has written one scintillation of that interblending of Imagination and Fact that stamps a man as a Maker: his foot never crossed that spirit-region wherein Fancy (in its deepest sense) sculptures her grand conceptions and whence there come from the very blows of the worker, bursts of music. So that I must regard the Silurist's generous praise of Herbert as true to his feeling but untrue and misleading to his genius. It is the mere tradition of criticism to class Silex Scintillans with The Temple. From the inevitableness of common themes and common experience and common beliefs, there are occasional reminiscences of the latter in the former: but with these slight exceptions, Henry Vaughan indubitably is a Poet of an incomparably loftier and original caste. There are things in Vaughan's poetry that Herbert never could have dared to reach: and indeed Dr. MacDonald has glimpses of this, though he does not give it that preponderance that belongs to it.

I limit Vaughan's debt to Herbert almost wholly to spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling: more than that is profoundly exaggerate, and I must absolutely affirm with Archbishop Trench: "As a divine Vaughan may be inferior, but as a poet he is certainly superior, to Herbert, who never wrote anything so purely poetical as "The Retreat". I regret that his Grace should have added: "Still Vaughan would never probably have written as he has, if Herbert, whom he gratefully owns as his Master, had not shown him the way". Vaughan has nowhere called Herbert his Master as a Poet and their poetry is fundamentally distinct, to every one who will ponder their ways of looking at precisely the same things. That spiritually Herbert had the most potential influence on Vaughan is certain. His Epistle and Preface to Silex Scintillans gratefully proclaim it: and in his Prose Writings the impress of The Temple is plain. He works into the Mount of Olives stanzas from Herbert, and but that they were familiar to us, from the way they are introduced we might have regarded them as his own. Then unconsciously I believe, his thoughts clothed themselves in his prose with Herbert's words. For example we read in the Mount of Olives the following, "Let sensual natures judge as they please, but for my part, I shall hold it no paradoxe to affirme, there are no pleasures in this world. Some coloured griefes of blushing woes there are, which look as clear as if they were true complexions; but it is a very sad and a tryed truth, that they are but painted". This is plainly fetched from Herbert's "Rose":

  Press me not to take more pleasure

  In this world of sugar'd lies,

And to use a larger measure

  Than my strict yet welcome size.

First, there is no pleasure here:

   Colour'd griefs indeed there are,

Blushing woes that look as clear,

  As if they could beauty spare.

I can't say I was sorry to trace the sentiment to another than Vaughan himself: its second-hand derivation allows me to think its touch of misanthropy was not spontaneous. A small whimper of this sort has nothing of the terrible pathos of the old "Vanitas Vanitatum": and in this still radiant Earth is a blunder if not worse, though meant for spiritual-mindedness. Summarily I deny that Henry Vaughan was an imitator of George Herbert. In the latter's "Decay", a frequent thought with the Silurist is found but it is one of the blessed common-places of the Bible, to wit, the familiarity of the Divine presence in the Earth under the elder dispensation. Herbert's "Peace", has tones that resound sweetly in Vaughan's "Peace" but again there is nothing peculiar to either or rather both had evidently before them the grand old hymn "O mother dear Jerusalem". One is at a loss to know where Willmott found 'imitation' in "Beyond the Veil" 's final stanza,

Either disperse those mists which blot and fill

     My perspective as they pass,

Or else remove me hence unto that Hill

     Where I shall need no glass:

of Herbert's "Grace", as thus,

         O come! for Thou dost know the way

      Or if to me Thou wilt not move,

      Remove me where I need not say--

                   Drop from above.

The thing is rediculous. I notice only another point, viz., the alleged superior art of Herbert. Says Dr. MacDonald "His [Vaughan's] 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." The appreciation of Vaughan by Dr. MacDonald is so wholehearted, and elsewhere so nobly stated that it pains me to say so: but the negligence of Herbert's versification, the incongruity of many of his images, the triviality of his conceits, the meanness of his symbols, and the absence of that grandeur which is patent in Vaughan, have been so long admitted as blots that I am at a stand to know by what glamour they have been passed by such a Critic. I will not deny that there are what seem discordant notes or tones in Vaughan, even occasional inadequacy in the wording for the thinking or feeling; but to liken the march of his splendid Poetry for one instant with the tinkling pieties of The Temple or to weigh graciousness of sentiment against grandeur of thought, is I apprehend superlatively uncritical and esthetically false. Moreover I demur to "utterance of the thought in worthy presence of speech" being the criterion of the Poet. By that standard you will make Denham and Pope earlier and Campbell and Samuel Rogers later the poets of their century or in our day you will put William Morris above Robert Browning. Besides, one must get his spirit 'keyed' (to use Vaughan's word) to the music and rhythm of a master-poet before you say of him that he is 'awkward'. There are odd and puzzling rhymes in Vaughan: but twenty-fold more such in Herbert....

Correctness, immaculate measure and 'smoothness' without 'the thoughts that breathe' will never make a man more than a Versifier. The thought not the form decides the question: perfection of both is only to be found once in centuries. Vaughan's thought is always true, his feelings fine and his utterance melodious. Herbert's thought is often thin and his feelings oftener valetudinarian, and his wording common-place. It is his pervading goodness and sanctity that have so transfigured his Verse: and his Life as told by Isaac Walton is so charmingly sweet, tender, loveable that one has an accusing sense in saying one syllable derogatory. Nevertheless, the truth must be spoken as meeting the preposterous claim for him of higher poetic power than Vaughan's.

Then in another aspect, I believe that the Silurist with all his spontaneity, as of a Nightingale, spent more time in fining and refining his verse than might be supposed....

It would seem clear, therefore, that while the art was concealed, there was art in our Worthy's workmanship on his verse, as well on its rhythm as rhyme. There are occasional alliterations long-drawn out, and the thought of one line passed on into another, as tune melting into tune, that betoken studied intention so to present what he had to sing. His use of monosyllables or what may be and ordinarily are such so as to compel the Reader to make them dissyllables, and similarly with others, produces a fine effect, as of a stone splitting a stream and making a sweeter and tender music thereby. Altogether with every abatement in respect of defective rhymes by our standard that were not defective at the period, through their pronounciation, and accordingly are found in the highest Masters, and conceding that the thought is sometimes so thick-coming and weighty as to give a shadow of obscurity (or call it chiaroscuro) or at least ellipsis at a first reading, I must regard Henry Vaughan as more than the equal of George Herbert even in form. In the deeper elements, in the electric flash that does'nt so much tell of Wordsworth's supernal light, as of the fire of genius kindled by the Great Giver alone, and which no mere piety or mere culture can ever send forth--the penetrative seizure of the innermost subtleties of feeling and prisoning them in human speech, such as later was the imperial gift of Shelley--the vision of the mysteries of the Universe, veiled and curtained, fold on fold, to ordinary mortal eyes--the sudden surprise of grand thoughts uttered with the simpleness of a child and as though nothing remarkable, and really to the utterer un-remarkable--the calm footstep and the uplifted eye in the most interior regions of Wonder-land--the transfiguring radiance cast on lowliest things so as to lift the "meanest flower that blows" into fellowship with man--the recognition of the manifold symbolisms of Nature in opposition to mere conceits of analogy put into Nature--the bird-like bursts of abandonment of verbal music that no Thalberg-fingers can simulate--comparison of the "sweet Singer" of The Temple with the poet of Silex Scintillans is to my mind an outrage by every canon of critical estimate. I rejoice that it has been given to me worthily to reproduce for the first time the complete Words of a genius so idiosyncratic, so certain to win capable Readers the more he is studied; and my satisfaction is the truer, in that with all his morbid modesty and depreciation of himself, Henry Vaughan again and again reveals his consciousness of being a Poet concerning whom Posterity should inquire, one whose gift it was to confer immortality. May his beloved Usca, lucent and beautiful to-day as in his day, abide in ever-enduring association with his name: or, adapting Matthew Arnold's exquisite tribute to Wordsworth, I would address Welshmen (if they be not too degenerate in poetic sympathy to enter into it,) thus:

Keep fresh the grass upon his grave,

O Usca! with thy living wave,

Sing him thy best! for few or none,

Hear thy voice right, now he is gone.

Source Citation: Grosart, Rev. Alexander B., "Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist," in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II, edited by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, Blackburn, 1871, pp. ix-ci. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27.