Henry Vaughan’s first collection, Poems, is very derivative; in it can be found borrowings from Donne, Jonson, William Hobington, William Cartwright, and others. It contains only thirteen poems in addition to the translation of Juvenal. Seven poems are written to Amoret, believed to idealize the poet’s courtship of Catherine Wise, ranging from standard situations of thwarted and indifferent love to this sanguine couplet in “To Amoret Weeping”: “Yet whilst Content, and Love we joyntly vye,/ We have a blessing which no gold can buye.” Perhaps in “Upon the Priorie Grove, His Usuall Retirement,” Vaughan best captures the promise of love accepted and courtship rewarded even by eternal love:
So there again, thou ’It see us moveIn our first Innocence, and Love:And in thy shades, as now, so thenWee’le kisse, and smile, and walke again.
The lines move with the easy assurance of one who has studied the verses of the urbane Tribe of Ben. That other favorite sport of the Tribe—after wooing—was drink, and in “A Rhapsodie, Occasionally written upon a meeting with some friends at the Globe Taverne, . . .” one sees the poet best known for his devout poems celebrating with youthful fervor all the pleasures of the grape and rendering a graphic slice of London street life. Though imitative, this little volume possesses its own charm. Perhaps it points to the urbane legal career that Vaughan might have pursued had not the conflicts of church and state driven him elsewhere.
The poet of Olor Iscanus is a different man, one who has returned from the city to the country, one who has seen the face of war and defeat. Nowhere in his writing does Vaughan reject the materials of his poetic apprenticeship in London: He favors, even in his religious lyrics, smooth and graceful couplets where they are appropriate. This volume contains various occasional poems and elegies expressing Vaughan’s disgust with the defeat of the Royalists by Oliver Cromwell’s armies and the new order of Puritan piety. The leading poem, “To the River Isca,” ends with a plea for freedom and safety, the river’s banks “redeem’d from all disorders!” The real current pulling this river—underscoring the quality of Olor Iscanus which prompted its author to delay publication—is a growing resolve to sustain one’s friends and one’s sanity by choosing rural simplicity. The idea of this country fortitude is expressed in many ways. For example, the Cavalier invitation poem, “To my worthy friend, Master T. Lewes,” opens with an evocation of nature “Opprest with snow,” its rivers “All bound up in an Icie Coat.” The speaker in the poem asks his friend to pass the harsh time away and, like nature itself, preserve the old pattern for reorder:
Let us meet then! and while this worldIn wild Excentricks now is hurld,Keep wee, like nature, the same Key,And walk in our forefathers way.
In the elegy for Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the late Charles I, Vaughan offers this metaphor: “Thou seem’st a Rose-bud born in Snow,/ A flowre of purpose sprung to bow/ To headless tempests, and the rage/ Of an Incensed, stormie Age.” Then, too, in Olor Iscanus, Vaughan includes his own translations from Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) and the Horatian odes of the seventeenth century Polish writer Sarbiewski. In these, the “country shades” are the seat of refuge in an uncertain world, the residence of virtue, and the best route to blessedness. Moreover, affixed to the volume are three prose adaptations and translations by Vaughan: Of the Benefit Wee may get by our Enemies, after Plutarch; Of the Diseases of the Mind and the Body, after Maximum Tirius; and The Praise and Happiness of the Countrie-Life, after Antonio de Guevera. In this last, Vaughan renders one passage: “Pietie and Religion may be better Cherish’d and preserved in the Country than any where else.”
The themes of humility, patience, and Christian stoicism abound in Olor Iscanus in many ways, frequently enveloped in singular works praising life in the country. The literary landscape of pastoral melds with Vaughan’s Welsh countryside. For Vaughan, the enforced move back to the country ultimately became a boon; his retirement from a “world gone mad” (his words) was no capitulation, but a pattern for endurance. It would especially preserve and sustain the Anglican faith that two civil wars had...
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