How would you justify the title of Henry Vaughan's poem "The Retreat"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this poem, Henry Vaughan expresses his hope that, when he dies, he will not be moving forward, as such, but instead returning to the state of innocence he was in before he was born, and in his early childhood. This is the retreat to which the title refers. He sees his journey towards the grave not as a forward motion, but as a series of "backward steps," suggesting a deliberately action.

The poem explains what it is that the speaker is retreating from—he longs for a time before his tongue was able to "wound" others; for a time when he was not able readily to sin. As such, he seeks to return to a time before this. The choice of the word "retreat" rather than "return" is key, as it contains the implication that the act is deliberate and willful. The speaker remembers how things were when he was a cleaner, purer, better person, and he is thinking about the day when he will be that person once more. As such, he is not simply dreaming of a return to God, but making a conscious effort to "retreat" to a previous incarnation of himself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The term “retreat” can have more than one meaning. In a military sense, a retreat is when you withdraw in the face of a superior enemy. (You run away, or pull back.) In daily life, a retreat is also pulling back, but more in order to get out of the stresses of daily life and reflect on deeper matters. Many religious organizations have period retreats, often with specific themes.

This poem is a rather wistful meditation on both possible meanings but mostly the second. Vaughn is moving away from the present back to the past, pulling back from the sinful, earthly focus he has developed in recent years, in the wish of reclaiming his original innocence.

However the depth of the poem is in its impossibility. He’s saying, essentially, I wish I could go back to when I was pure…but I can’t. The knowledge he’s gained of this world has changed him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial