Please explain the poem "The Retreat."

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ansleyclark eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem explores the nature of humanity's regret, longing, and suffering. One of the most interesting moments in this poem occurs in the third line: "Before I understood this place..." "This place" refers to earth, and this line implies that the speaker wishes understanding earth means understanding that life on earth inherently involves pain and suffering.

Later Vaughan tells us that he wishes to return to his state before life on earth: 

Before I taught my tongue to wound 
My conscience with a sinful sound, 
Or had the black art to dispense 
A several sin to every sense
While on a religious level these lines certainly refer to returning to the soul's purity, they also imply self-loathing and pain. Vaughan's speaker has most likely done and said things that he regrets. He attributes this pain almost entirely to his own "sins," i.e his mistakes. He refers to these sins or mistakes as being evil and a part of the black arts. He also links them to his senses, or to his physical self. This makes sense as a big part of Christianity, or at least Christianity back in the day, was concerned with avoiding the "sins of the flesh": the sins of physical indulgence, such as sex, alcohol, and food. This led to a lot shame surrounding one's physical body. 
Thus, this poem deals with not only a longing to return to the soul's pure state with God, but also with a very human speaker who is full of pain and regret.
kmcappello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Vaughan was a Welsh poet who wrote in the latter half of the 17th century.  He experienced a conversion to Christianity later in life, and much of his work is marked by this.

"The Retreat" is based on the belief that we exist as souls in heaven before we are born on Earth.  Those who follow this belief also believe that babies are inherently sin-free, as they have just come from heaven.  Throughout the poem, the speaker references this "angel-infancy" when life was perfect and filled with the presence of God, his "first love."  He longs to return to this idyllic existence before he became marked by sin, "Before I taught my tongue to wound/My conscience with a sinful sound."

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this poem, Henry Vaughan is bemoaning his sins and wishing that he could go back to a purer state, one where his soul was free from sin.

In the poem, he talks about how, before this life, his soul was pure and sinless.  (This comes from a belief of some Christians that souls have such an existence before being born in bodies on this earth.)    He contrasts that pure state with his state on earth where he has a different kind of sin for every sense in his body.

He closes by saying that he hopes that there will not be much more of a delay before he can return to this sinless state of being.

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