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 I
Shined in my angel infancy.
These days were happy, he continues, because he had not yet "taught [his] soul to fancy" anything other than "a white, celestial thought." He goes on to give more examples of why that life was a better one. He was still close enough to his "first love" that he could "see a glimpse of His bright face" when he looked at some of God's creation, like a flower or a cloud. Back then his "gazing soul" would ponder such things, and his thoughts would often direct him to heaven. But of course that was all part of an earlier time, a time
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,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
The second half of the poem is similar to the first, but instead of just thinking about the happiness of those "early days," the speaker expresses a deep longing to go back to them.
O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
He wants to, as the title suggests, retreat to a better and more enlightened time in his life, a time when he was closer to God. Unfortunately, he cannot do that because his soul has been here on earth too long and is too connected to the pleasures of this world. He is no longer able to go back because the earthly desires of his soul get in the way.
It is clear that the speaker believes that one is closest to God in childhood, when the connection is closer, or perhaps the separation is less. As we grow older, that connection grows more tenuous and that separation is wider. Even worse, both of these things are caused by our own choices to succumb to temptation and sin. By the time we are adults, the connection is non-existent and the separation has become an uncrossable chasm. This is the speaker's truth, and he is not happy with himself for letting his earth-bound desires get in the way of more spiritual things, like his connection to God and his more eternal-minded thoughts.
He knows that he may be alone in this kind of thinking, and the last lines of the poem are the best reflection of his theme. The speaker says:
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.
Unlike those who look to the future with anticipation and always want to move forward with their lives, this speaker wants nothing more than to move backward, returning to that earlier state of closeness with God. He wants, as the title says, to retreat.