Please analyze "The Retreat" by Henry Vaughan  

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Vaughan, a metaphysical poet, celebrates a conservative, "pre-fall" Christian attitude in "The Retreate."  With most metaphysicals, Vaughan uses an elaborate conceit (a personified soul) that plays on two levels, the physical and the spiritual.

On the physical level, Vaughan wants to retreat back to his childhood, which can be read as a Freudian/psychoanalytic escape of the corrupt adult world.

On the spiritual level, Vaughan celebrates his perfect soul, before it "sinned."  In lines 3-4, he says, "Before I understood this place / Appointed for my second race." The footnote in my text says:

here means life, in reference to belief of some Christians that the soul had a heavenly existence before life in this world

This could not only mean a childhood state of innocence and ignorance, but his pre-conceived soul--a kind of Garden of Eden pre-fall state of grace.

It would seem, in Christian theology, that the best way for a grown man to attain heavenly perfection is to die and ascend to heaven, moving forward in age.  But, Vaughan wants to go backward, to negate all his past sin and be washed clean from the start:

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.

Christians usually pride themselves on choosing the most difficult path, and Vaughan here is no different.

This seems to be the antithesis of the intellectual (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and pagan (Macbeth) attitudes.  Speaking of those who live in the past, the forward-thinking Emerson said, "Man's eyes are in his forehead, not his hindhead."   In Macbeth Act III, Macbeth tells Lady M:

I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

The pagan Macbeth would rather move forward in his murders, since it would be easier than turning back half-way.

Overall, Vaughan refutes the temporal and carnal; he champions his soul above the body (Macbeth) and mind (Emerson).

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