Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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.).

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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 poetry is concerned with the relationship of the individual soul to God and, as in “Childe-hood,” sadly notes the difficulty of knowing God’s presence in the fallen world humans inhabit. Because of this, some critics have called Vaughan a poet of frustration or even failure, especially when his work is compared with the greater assurance—and reassurance—of religious verse such as Herbert’s.

Some critics find a political dimension to Vaughan’s nostalgia and rejection of the world he saw around him. In his prose, such as The Mount of Olives (1652), Vaughan bemoans the harsh measures of the Puritans and their effect on the church. Certainly, the effects of the Civil War in England were far-reaching, and Vaughan’s unhappiness with it may have provided further motive for a wish to retreat to childhood. Still, despite the condemnation of T. S. Eliot in a 1927 review of a study of Vaughan’s poetry, one cannot dismiss it as mere immature failure to face the present.

Vaughan’s view of childhood, which he shared with fellow metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, would not be explored by a major artist until it became a primary concern of the poet William Blake, especially seen in his Songs of Innocence (1789). Many critics believe that Vaughan influenced the Romantic view of childhood, especially in the poems of William Wordsworth.

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