Henry Vaughan 1621–1695
Welsh-born English poet.
Vaughan is among the foremost of the seventeenth-century religious poets of the Commonwealth era, occupying a high position in the literature of his time along with John Donne and George Herbert. While his early poetry places him among the "Sons of Ben," imitators of Ben Jonson, his poetry from the late 1640s and 1650s, published in two editions of Silex Scintillons (1650 and 1655) places him in the School of Donne and the religious poets of the period. His transition from the influence of the Jacobean neoclassical poets to the Metaphysicals was one manifestation of his reaction to the English Civil War, which concluded with the Church of England outlawed and low-church Protestantism in ascendancy. Vaughan kept faith with Anglicanism largely through Silex Scintillans, his sympathetic poetic response to Herbert's poetic expression of Christian belief, The Temple (1633). Vaughan's reputation rests squarely upon Silex Scintillans, in which appear his best-known works, including "The Retreat," "The World," which begins with the often-quoted lines, "I saw Eternity the other night / Like a great Ring of pure and endless light," and the poem called by one scholar "the crown of Vaughan's poetry," "They are all gone into the world of light!"
Vaughan was the elder of twin sons born to Thomas and Denise Vaughan of Newton-by-Usk, Brecknockshire, in South Wales. (His brother, Thomas, grew up to become a poet in his own right, as well as a mystic and alchemist.) He was raised on a small estate in the parish of Llanssantffread, within sight of the mountains, valleys, and the river Usk, which figure strongly in his poetry. Most biographers posit that he matriculated at Oxford with his brother Thomas in 1638, but that he left in 1640 without taking a degree, journeying to London to study law at the Inns of Court. Vaughan's law studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. It is unclear whether he participated in the war as a combatant, but it is clear that the war's aftermath, especially the suppression of the Anglican church, had a profound impact on his poetry. In 1650, the year after Charles I was executed, Vaughan published the first edition of his Silex Scintillans, which marked the beginning of his most active period as a writer. In addition to poetry, Vaughan published a prose devotional work, The Mount of Olives (1652), and translated several short works by Plutarch, Maximus Tirius, Johannes Nierembergius, Eucherius of Lyons, and Paulinus of Bordeaux on such topics as morality, humility, temperance, patience, and the meaning of life and death. In the mid 1650s, at age thirty-five, Vaughan turned from poetry to a career of practicing medicine. After beginning his medical practice he published nothing for the next twenty years, until the appearance of Thalia Rediviva. He adopted the life of a Welsh country gentleman and gave himself the title "the silurist" (after the ancient Silures, who had once inhabited his native South Wales). Having twice married, and having fathered several children by both wives, Vaughan spent his last years embroiled in a series of legal actions taken by his children in which he defended himself against charges of favoritism in the dispersal of family property. Vaughan finally resolved the matter the year before his death in 1695.
Vaughan's first volume, Poems, with the tenth Satyre of Juvenal Englished, appeared in 1646, attracting scant but respectful notice. Another collection of secular poetry, Olor Iscanus, was completed within a year of the appearance of Poems but not published until 1651. The work included a brief prefatory remark by Thomas Vaughan intimating that but for his influence the poems would have been destroyed by their author. During this period, it is believed that Vaughan's anxiety and grief associated with the antiroyalists' triumph in the Civil War and the death of a younger brother contributed to a profound religious experience that turned him to the writing of poetry on Christian themes. His poetry, which had to this point followed the neoclassical emphasis upon form and objective contemplation of the inanimate, became personal and contemplative within a Christian-humanist framework. The first volume of Silex Scintillans was considered far superior in power to the poet's earlier work. The second, enlarged edition of Silex Scintillans, though not considered an overall improvement, does include the acclaimed "They are all gone into the world of light!" The next few years saw Vaughan publishing much of a Christian humanist nature, notably the devotions included in The Mount of Olives and the new poetry collection Flores Solitudinis (1654). Vaughan's final publication, Thalia Rediviva, includes juvenilia and odd pieces written both before and (it is believed) after Silex Scintillans. The work also contains poems by Thomas Vaughan and several prefatory encomnia in verse.
Vaughan's poetry was neglected by critics until it came to the attention of the Romantics near the end of the eighteenth century. Wordsworth acquired a copy of Silex Scintillans, and it is believed by many that Vaughan's "The Retreat" directly influenced his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," with both poems being bittersweet, personal ruminations upon the divine source of childhood innocence. This question of influence is the source of much critical discussion, with recent scholarship noting that though direct influence cannot be proved, it is certain that Vaughan's poetry and its metaphysical concerns were certainly "in the air" among Wordsworth's circle. Several editions of Vaughan's works were published during the nineteenth century, culminating in Alexander B. Grosart's four-volume omnibus collection in 1871. This edition was succeeded by L. C. Martin's collected edition of 1914, which roughly coincided with a rise in critical and popular interest in the poetry of John Donne and the Metaphysicals, due largely to H. J. C. Grierson's editions of their works. Martin's edition spurred much critical and biographical activity, eliciting comment and seminal studies by T. S. Eliot, E. L. Marilla, Frank Kermode, E. C. Pettet, and F. E. Hutchinson, author of the definitive biography. Kermode articulated one point of critical debate that endures: the question of Vaughan's alleged religious transformation before the publication of Silex Scintillons. Kermode contends that the poet's conversion "was rather a poetic than a religious experience," holding that Vaughan's poems should be appraised "as poetry rather than as prayer." Kermode has been answered by other scholars, notably H. J. Oliver. Another point, debated by many critics, is the question of whether Vaughan's accomplishment evidences sustained poetic power or, rather, mere flashes of occasional but undeniable brilliance. On these and other issues have many full-length studies of Vaughan's works been published since 1960.