Discuss "The Retreat" a typical metaphysical religious poem.

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to Samuel Johnson, who in the eighteenth century took a dim view of the metaphysicals:

Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found . . . The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together . . .

The metaphysical poets, beyond yoking unusual ideas together, also, as their name suggests, saturated their poems with a religious or a spiritual sensibility. They saw a continuation of life after death and, as Johnson also points out with some exasperation, used jagged, startling rhymes, more like spoken language than the even, rhythmic galloping of heroic couplets that Johnson preferred.

If metaphysical poets are known for unusual metaphors, at first glance "The Retreat" seems not to fit the form. How much more cliched can one get than "life is journey" or, to pick up another theme, "the child is the father of the man"? To understand the freshness of this poem, we have to look at it more carefully and place it within the context of its time.

In the 17th century, it was uncommon to understand children as  innocent. Children were believed to be born with original sin. They were born tainted and were actually improved as they aged, because they were taught religion, had their wills broken, and could come to salvation and forgiveness through Christianity. We today see the "child as purer" meme as hackneyed because it became so popular in the Romantic and Victorian periods of the 19th century, especially, as noted above, in Wordsworth's formulation that the child is the father of the man. And who can forget the purity of Dickens' Tiny Tim? In Vaughn's time, however, the "child as innocent" idea would have had a more startling quality.

Life as a journey also seems hackneyed for a metaphysical poet, but what makes it unusual is that Vaughn envisions it as a backward motion or retreat, as the title suggests. We tend to think of a journey as a forward motion, and a "retreat" as a negative act, such as in an army retreating. But Vaughn imagines it as good. He ends the poem by stating,

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.

The poem is clearly metaphysical in its emphasis on the "eternal" and with its contrast of the current "drunk[en]" state of the narrator's soul, which "staggers" under sin,  and the child he once was, who

on some gilded cloud or flower 
My gazing soul would dwell an hour
And in those weaker glories spy 
Some shadows of eternity
The poem celebrates death and looks forward to it as a return to childhood innocence. It also has the conversational tone so typical of the metaphysicals, such as when the narrator seems to reach out and address his audience directly, saying,
O, how I long to travel back 
A closer look at the imagery would show more, such as in Vaughn's play on "infancy" and "fancy," but this is a start on a fascinating poem that reflects a cry from the heart.
accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most common aspect of metaphysical poetry is the use of conceits, which can be described as surprising figures of speech in which one thing is compared to another thing that is rather unlike it. In this poem, we can see the central conceit that is used throughout is the comparison of life to a journey or a race. This is used to describe the speaker's longing for a "retreat" to where he came from originally. This poem is about the belief of some that the soul had a heavenly existence prior to its earthly existence in the world. Thus the speaker talks about being "Appointed for my second race" and walking "a mile or two" from his first home.

Note the longing in the speaker's voice when he expresses his desire to return and venture back to his first home:

Oh how I long to travel back,

And tread again that ancient track!

That I might once more reach that plain,

Where first I left my glorious train...

Here he expresses his desire and fervent hope that he might venture back to where he originally came from, likening his life to a journey and hoping that the end destination will be from whence he emerged. Thus the central metaphysical quality of this poem is its use of a conceit to liken life to a long journey.

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