The primary theme of Henry Vaughan's "The Retreat" is encapsulated in the title. While most people look at the world and their lives and want to keep moving forward, the speaker of this poem wants to move backward, at least in terms of his spirituality. The speaker clearly believes that he was closest to God when he was born than at any other time during his life. The reason for that, he says, is that he has grown to set his thoughts on things other than God and has developed his sinful nature. This poem is a meditation about sin and worldly concerns getting in the way of man's earliest connection to God.
The first half of the poem is one very long sentence expressing joy about those wonderful early days of the speaker's life.
Happy those early days! when IShined in my angel infancy.
Before I taught my tongue to woundMy conscience with a sinful sound,Or had the black art to dispenseA several sin to every sense,But felt through all this fleshly dressBright shoots of everlastingness.
O, how I long to travel back,And tread again that ancient track!
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.