Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The religious significance of the poem should be clear. After a less distinguished career in secular poetry influenced by the school of Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Vaughan experienced a religious conversion in the late 1640’s and began writing poetry drawing on many sources, including the Bible and the works of religious poet George Herbert (1593-1633). Many critics see Vaughan’s works as traditional theology expressed in unconventional images. Yet Vaughan was also influenced by neo-Platonic and occult ideas, perhaps learned from his twin brother Thomas, an alchemist and mystical philosopher. The idea that children maintain some memories of eternity, lost as they settle into the material world, can be found in the Hermetic texts and the works of Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), Plotinus (205-270 c.e.), and even Plato (c. 428-c. 348 b.c.e.).

The biblical influences are central, however, as is the influence of Herbert’s poem “The Collar,” about the pursuit of the soul by God. Its last two lines are: “Methought I heard one calling, Child!/ And I reply’d, My Lord.” The state desired by the speaker of Vaughan’s poem is both that of actual childhood and the pre-Fall innocence of Adam in Paradise. As Vaughan’s contemporary, Jeremy Taylor, wrote, “In Baptism we are born again,” free of Adam’s sin.

Much of Vaughan’s religious...

(The entire section is 447 words.)