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.
Poems, with the Tenth Satyre of luvenal Englished (poetry) 1646
Silex Scintillons; or, Sacred Poems and Priuate Eiaculations (poetry) 1650; revised edition, 1655
Olor Iscanus (discourses) 1651
The Mount of Olives; or, Solitary Devotions (discourse and devotions) 1652
Flores Solitudinis (discourses and devotions) 1654
Thalia Rediviva (poetry) 1678
The Works of Henry Vaughan. 2 vols, (poetry, discourses, and devotions) 1916
Orinda (poem date 1651)
SOURCE: "To Mr. Henry Vaughan the Silurist: Upon These and His Former Poems," in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II, edited by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, Blackburn, 1871, pp. 187-89.
[Katherine Philips, who wrote under the pseudonym Orinda, was a seventeenth-century English poet whose work was highly regarded during her lifetime and by John Keats during the nineteenth century. She was hailed as "the matchless Orinda" by her contemporaries. In the following set of iambic pentameter couplets, which preface Olor Iscanus (1651), Orinda eloquently celebrates Vaughan's accomplishment as a poet.]
Had I ador'd the multitude, and thence
Got an antipathy to wit and sence,
And hugg'd that fate, in hope the world would grant
'Twas good affection to be ignorant:
Yet the least ray of thy bright fancy seen,
I had converted, or excuseless been.
For each birth of thy Muse to after-times
Shall expiate for all this Age's crimes.
First shines thy "Amoret," twice crown'd by thee:
Once by thy love, next by thy poetrie;
Where thou the best of unions dost dispense,
Truth cloth'd in wit, and Love in innocence.
So that the muddie lover may learn here,
No fountains can be sweet, that are not clear.
There Juvenal, by thee reviv'd declares
How flat man's joys are, and how mean his cares;
And wisely doth upbraid the World, that they
Should such a value for their ruine pay.
But when thy sacred Muse diverts her quill
The landskip to design of Sion's Hill,
As nothing else was worthy her, or thee,
So we admire almost t' idolatrie.
What savage breast would not be rap'd to find
Such jewels in such cabinets enshrin'd?
Thou fill'd with joys—too great to see or count:—
Descend'st from thence, like Moses from the Mount,
And with a candid, yet unquestion'd awe
Restor'st the Golden Age, when verse was Law.
Instructing us, thou so secur'st thy fame,
That nothing can disturb it but my name.
Nay I have hopes that standing so near thine
Twill loose its dross, and by degrees refine.
Live! till the disabuséd world consent
All truths of use, of strength or ornament,
Are with such harmony by thee display'd
As the whole world was first by number made;
And from the charming rigour thy Muse brings
Learn, there's no pleasure but in serious things!
Nathaniel Williams (poem date 1678)
SOURCE: "To the Ingenious Author of Thalia Rediviva," in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II, edited by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, Blackburn, 1871, pp. 190-92.
[Williams was a friend and admirer of Vaughan. In the following poem, which prefaces Thalia Rediviva (1678), he praises Vaughan as one blessed by the poetic Muse to lead readers into the path of Virtue. (Williams's "an immortal offering" concludes an allusion to Vaughan's translation of Claudian's "Phoenix" in Thalia Rediviva.)]
Rev. H. F. Lyte (essay date 1847)
SOURCE: "Biographical Sketch of Henry Vaughan," in The Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations of Henry Vaughan, edited by Rev. H. F. Lyte, Little, Brown, and Company, 1854, pp. 1-30.
[Lyte was an English clergyman and minor poet who published The Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations of Henry Vaughan along with the following assessment of Vaughan's achievement shortly before his death in 1847.]
The mind and heart of [Vaughan] are abundantly exhibited in his writings, which are full of individuality; and, while we would deprecate pledging ourselves to every sentiment they contain, we feel that they claim for him unvarying respect, and commend themselves to us as the genuine overflowings of a sincere and humble spirit. We feel, while reading them, that we have to do with a truly good and earnest man. His poems display much originality of thought, and frequently likewise much felicity of expression. The former is, indeed, at times condensed into obscurity, and the latter defaced with quaintness. But Vaughan never degenerates into a smooth versifier of commonplaces. One, indeed, of his great faults as a poet, is the attempt to crowd too much of matter into his sentences, so that they read roughly and inharmoniously, the words almost elbowing each other out of the lines. His rhymes, too, are frequently defective; and he delights in making the sense of one line run over into the line following. This, when not overdone, is doubtless a beauty in versification, and redeems it from that monotony which so offends in the poets of Queen Anne's time. Yet even this may be pushed to excess, and become by its uniformity liable itself to the imputation of monotony. Take, for instance, the very beautiful lines of Vaughan entitled "Rules and Lessons," the first five stanzas of which strikingly exemplify the fault here specified; and it was perhaps their consequent harshness that induced Bernard Barton to transpose them, not infelicitously, into a different stanza. A more favourable specimen of line flowing into line is the following morning address to a "Bird:"—
This will be felt to be very tender and beautiful, notwithstanding the imperfect rhyme in the fourth line; and the volume now republished is full of like passages. Indeed, it may with truth be said of Vaughan, that his faults are in a great measure those of the age he lived in, and the master he imitated, while his beauties are all his own. That he will ever become a thoroughly popular poet is scarcely to be expected in this age. But among those who can prize poetic thought, even when clad in a dress somewhat quaint and antiquated, who love to commune with a heart overflowing with religious ardour, and who do not value this the less because it has been lighted at the earlier and purer fires of Christianity, and has caught a portion of their youthful glow, poems like [those] of Henry Vaughan's will not want their readers, nor will such readers be unthankful to have our author and his works introduced to their acquaintance.
George MacDonald (essay date 1868)
SOURCE: "A Mount of Vision—Henry Vaughan," in England's Antiphon, Macmillan & Co. Publishers, 1868, pp. 251-79.
[A Scottish man of letters, MacDonald was a key figure in shaping the fantastic and mythopoeic literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such novels as Phantastes (1858) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872) are considered classics of fantasy literature. These works have influenced C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien, and other seekers of divine truth, adventure, and escape from mortal limitations. During his long, prolific career, MacDonald also wrote in several other genres, achieving particular success with his novels of British country life. In the following excerpt from his England's Antiphon (1868), he offers an overview of Vaughan's career, focusing upon the mystical, the naturalistic, and the child-centered elements in the poetry, and comparing Vaughan's work to that of George Herbert and William Wordsworth.]
Henry Vaughan belongs to the mystical school, but his poetry rules his theories. You find no more of the mystic than the poet can easily govern; in fact, scarcely more than is necessary to the highest poetry. He develops his mysticism upwards, with relation to his higher nature alone: it blossoms into poetry. His twin-brother Thomas developed his mysticism down-wards in the direction of the material sciences—a true effort still, but one in which the danger of ceasing to be true increases with increasing ratio the further it is carried….
Henry Vaughan was then nearly thirty years younger than George Herbert, whom he consciously and intentionally imitates. His art is not comparable to that of Herbert: hence Herbert remains the master; for it is not the thought that makes the poet; it is the utterance of that thought in worthy presence of speech. He is careless and somewhat rugged. If he can get his thought dressed, and thus made visible, he does not mind the dress fitting awkwardly, or even being a little out at elbows. And yet he has grander lines and phrases than any in Herbert. He has occasionally a daring success that strikes one with astonishment. In a word, he says more splendid things than Herbert, though he writes inferior poems. His thought is profound and just; the harmonies in his soul are true; its artistic and musical ear is defective. His movements are sometimes grand, sometimes awkward. Herbert is always gracious—I use the word as meaning much more than graceful.
Let any one who is well acquainted with Wordsworth's grand ode—that on the "Intimations of Immortality"—turn his mind to a comparison between that and ["The Retreat"]: he will find the resemblance remarkable. Whether "The Retreat" suggested the form of the "Ode" is not of much consequence, for the "Ode" is the outcome at once and essence of all Wordsworth's theories; and whatever he may have drawn from "The Retreat" is glorified in the "Ode." Still it is interesting to compare them. Vaughan believes with Wordsworth and some other great men that this is not our first stage of existence; that we are haunted by dim memories of a former state. This belief is not necessary, however, to sympathy with the poem, for whether the present be our first life or no, we have come from God, and bring from him conscience and a thousand godlike gifts. —"Happy those early days," Vaughan begins: "There was a time," begins Wordsworth, "when the earth seemed apparelled in celestial light." "Before I understood this place," continues Vaughan: "Blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realized," says Wordsworth. "A white celestial thought," says Vaughan: "Heaven lies about us in our infancy," says Wordsworth. "A mile or two off, I could see his face," says Vaughan: "Trailing clouds of glory do we come," says Wordsworth. "On some gilded cloud or flower, my gazing soul would dwell an hour," says Vaughan: "The hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower," says Wordsworth.
Wordsworth's poem is the profounder in its philosophy, as well as far the grander and lovelier in its poetry; but in the moral relation, Vaughan's poem is the more definite of the two, and gives us in its close, poor as that is compared with the rest of it, just what we feel is wanting in Wordsworth's—the hope of return to the bliss of childhood. We may be comforted for what we lose by what we gain; but that is not a recompense large enough to be divine: we want both. Vaughan will be a child again. For the movements of man's life are in spirals: we go back whence we came, ever returning on our former traces, only upon a higher level, on the next upward coil of the spiral, so that it is a going back and a going forward ever and both at once. Life is, as it were, a constant repentance, or thinking of it again: the childhood of the kingdom takes the place of the childhood of the brain, but comprises all that was lovely in the former delight. The heavenly children will subdue kingdoms, work righteousness, wax valiant in fight, rout the armies of the aliens, merry of heart as when in the nursery of this world they fought their fancied frigates, and defended their toy-battlements….
Many a true thought comes out by the help of a fancy or half-playful exercise of the thinking power. There is a good deal of such fancy in ["The Night"], but in the end it rises to the height of the purest and best mysticism. We must not forget that the deepest man can utter, will be but the type or symbol of a something deeper yet, of which he can perceive only a doubtful glimmer….
["The Night"] is glorious; and its lesson of quiet and retirement we need more than ever in these hurried days upon which we have fallen. If men would but be still enough in themselves to hear, through all the noises of the busy light, the voice that is ever talking on in the dusky chambers of their hearts! … I think this poem grander than any of George Herbert's. I use the word with intended precision. [Consider also "The Dawning,"] the end of which is not so good, poetically considered, as the magnificent beginning, but which contains striking lines throughout….
I do not think [Vaughan's] description of the dawn has ever been surpassed. The verse "All expect some sudden matter," is wondrously fine. The water "dead and in a grave," because stagnant, is a true fancy; and the "acquainted
elsewhere" of the running stream, is a masterly phrase. I need not point out the symbolism of the poem.
I do not know a writer, Wordsworth not excepted, who reveals more delight in the visions of Nature than Henry Vaughan. He is a true forerunner of Wordsworth, inasmuch as the latter sets forth with only greater profundity and more art than he, the relations between Nature and Human Nature; while, on the other hand, he is the forerunner as well of some one that must yet do what Wordsworth has left almost unattempted, namely—set forth the sympathy of Nature with the aspirations of the spirit that is born of God, born again, I mean, in the recognition of the child's relation to the Father. Both Herbert and Vaughan have thus read Nature, the latter turning many leaves which few besides have turned. In this he has struck upon a deeper and richer lode than even Wordsworth, although he has not wrought it with half his skill. In any history of the development of the love of the present age for Nature, Vaughan, although I fear his influence would be found to have been small as yet, must be represented as the Phosphor of coming dawn. Beside him, Thomson is cold, artistic, and gray: although larger in scope, he is not to be compared with him in sympathetic sight. It is this insight that makes Vaughan a mystic. He can see one thing everywhere, and all things the same—yet each with a thousand sides that radiate crossing lights, even as the airy particles around us. For him everything is the expression of, and points back to, some fact in the Divine Thought. Along the line of every ray he looks towards its radiating centre—the heart of the Maker.
Rev. Alexander B. Grosart (essay date 1871)
SOURCE: "Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist," in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II, edited by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, Blackburn, 1871, pp. ix-ci.
[Grosart was a nineteenth-century English clergyman and editor of numerous collections of works by British authors from the period 1400 to 1800. He published editions of the works of Richard Crashaw, Samuel Daniel, Sir Philip Sidney, and several other literary figures. In the following excerpt from his prefatory essay in volume two of Vaughan's collected works, Grosart compares Vaughan's accomplishment favorably to that of George Herbert.]
Comparisons have been instituted between Vaughan and GEORGE HERBERT of the most uncritical and baseless kind. I must frankly avow that it is a wonder to me how a mind of the insight and acumen of DR. GEORGE MAC-DONALD in Antiphon—where he has written so many wise and beautiful things about him—came to adjudge the Poet of The Temple a higher place qua Poet than the Silurist. With all my reverence and love for critic and subject, I must regard the verdict as a freak of judgment resting on some early (tacit) association. It is the very fantastique of criticism, as I take it, either in substance or workmanship to exalt good George Herbert above either Vaughan or RICHARD CRASHAW. His was a lovely soul, and in his verse there is the very spicery of a sweet, gentle, innocent piety: but after all it is fragrance rather than form, flower-scent not flower-beauty. I do not find in all GEORGE HERBERT has written one scintillation of that interblending of Imagination and Fact that stamps a man as a Maker: his foot never crossed that spirit-region wherein Fancy (in its deepest sense) sculptures her grand conceptions and whence there come from the very blows of the worker, bursts of music. So that I must regard the Silurist's generous praise of Herbert as true to his feeling but untrue and misleading to his genius. It is the mere tradition of criticism to class Silex Scintillans with The Temple. From the inevitableness of common themes and common experience and common beliefs, there are occasional reminiscences of the latter in the former: but with these slight exceptions, HENRY VAUGHAN indubitably is a Poet of an incomparably loftier and original caste. There are things in Vaughan's poetry that Herbert never could have dared to reach: and indeed Dr. MacDonald has glimpses of this, though he does not give it that preponderance that belongs to it.
I limit VAUGHAN'S debt to HERBERT almost wholly to spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling: more than that is profoundly exaggerate, and I must absolutely affirm with ARCHBISHOP TRENCH: "As a divine Vaughan may be inferior, but as a poet he is certainly superior, to Herbert, who never wrote anything so purely poetical as "The Retreat". I regret that his Grace should have added: "Still Vaughan would never probably have written as he has, if Herbert, whom he gratefully owns as his Master, had not shown him the way". Vaughan has nowhere called Herbert his Master as a Poet and their poetry is fundamentally distinct, to every one who will ponder their ways of looking at precisely the same things. That spiritually Herbert had the most potential influence on Vaughan is certain. His Epistle and Preface to Silex Scintillans gratefully proclaim it: and in his Prose Writings the impress of The Temple is plain. He works into the Mount of Olives stanzas from Herbert, and but that they were familiar to us, from the way they are introduced we might have regarded them as his own. Then unconsciously I believe, his thoughts clothed themselves in his prose with Herbert's words. For example we read in the Mount of Olives the following, "Let sensual natures judge as they please, but for my part, I shall hold it no paradoxe to affirme, there are no pleasures in this world. Some coloured griefes of blushing woes there are, which look as clear as if they were true complexions; but it is a very sad and a tryed truth, that they are but painted". This is plainly fetched from Herbert's "Rose":
I can't say I was sorry to trace the sentiment to another than Vaughan himself: its second-hand derivation allows me to think its touch of misanthropy was not spontaneous. A small whimper of this sort has nothing of the terrible pathos of the old "Vanitas Vanitatum": and in this still radiant Earth is a blunder if not worse, though meant for spiritual-mindedness. Summarily I deny that HENRY VAUGHAN was an imitator of GEORGE HERBERT. In the latter's "Decay", a frequent thought with the Silurist is found but it is one of the blessed common-places of the Bible, to wit, the familiarity of the Divine presence in the Earth under the elder dispensation. Herbert's "Peace", has tones that resound sweetly in Vaughan's "Peace" but again there is nothing peculiar to either or rather both had evidently before them the grand old hymn "O mother dear Jerusalem". One is at a loss to know where WILLMOTT found 'imitation' in "Beyond the Veil" 's final stanza,
of Herbert's "Grace", as thus,
The thing is rediculous. I notice only another point, viz., the alleged superior art of HERBERT. Says Dr. MACDONALD "His [Vaughan's] art is not comparable to that of Herbert: hence Herbert remains the master; for it is not the thought that makes the poet; it is the utterance of that thought in worthy presence of speech. He is careless, and somewhat rugged. If he can get his thought dressed, and thus made visible, he does not mind the dress fitting awkwardly, or even being a little out at elbows. And yet he has grander lines and phrases than any in Herbert. He has occasionally a daring success that strikes one with astonishment. In a word, he says more splendid things than Herbert, though he writes inferior poems. His thought is profound and just; the harmonies in his soul are true; its artistic and musical ear is defective. His movements are sometimes grand, sometimes awkward. Herbert is always gracious—I use the word as meaning much more than graceful." The appreciation of Vaughan by Dr. MacDonald is so wholehearted, and elsewhere so nobly stated that it pains me to say so: but the negligence of HERBERT'S versification, the incongruity of many of his images, the triviality of his conceits, the meanness of his symbols, and the absence of that grandeur which is patent in Vaughan, have been so long admitted as blots that I am at a stand to know by what glamour they have been passed by such a Critic. I will not deny that there are what seem discordant notes or tones in Vaughan, even occasional inadequacy in the wording for the thinking or feeling; but to liken the march of his splendid Poetry for one instant with the tinkling pieties of The Temple or to weigh graciousness of sentiment against grandeur of thought, is I apprehend superlatively uncritical and esthetically false. Moreover I demur to "utterance of the thought in worthy presence of speech" being the criterion of the Poet. By that standard you will make DENHAM and POPE earlier Campbell Samuel Rogers later the poets of their century or in our day you will put WILLIAM MORRIS above ROBERT BROW NING. Besides, one must get his spirit 'keyed' (to use Vaughan's word) to the music and rhythm of a masterpoet before you say of him that he is 'awkward'. There are odd and puzzling rhymes in Vaughan: but twenty-fold more such in Herbert….
Correctness, immaculate measure and 'smoothness' without 'the thoughts that breathe' will never make a man more than a Versifier. The thought not the form decides the question: perfection of both is only to be found once in centuries. Vaughan's thought is always true, his feelings fine and his utterance melodious. Herbert's thought is often thin and his feelings oftener valetudinarian, and his wording common-place. It is his pervading goodness and sanctity that have so transfigured his Verse: and his Life as told by ISAAC WALTON is so charmingly sweet, tender, loveable that one has an accusing sense in saying one syllable derogatory. Nevertheless, the truth must be spoken as meeting the preposterous claim for him of higher poetic power than Vaughan's.
Then in another aspect, I believe that the Silurist with all his spontaneity, as of a Nightingale, spent more time in fining and refining his verse than might be supposed….
It would seem clear, therefore, that while the art was concealed, there was art in our Worthy's workmanship on his verse, as well on its rhythm as rhyme. There are occasional alliterations long-drawn out, and the thought of one line passed on into another, as tune melting into tune, that betoken studied intention so to present what he had to sing. His use of monosyllables or what may be and ordinarily are such so as to compel the Reader to make them dissyllables, and similarly with others, produces a fine effect, as of a stone splitting a stream and making a sweeter and tender music thereby. Altogether with every abatement in respect of defective rhymes by our standard that were not defective at the period, through their pronounciation, and accordingly are found in the highest Masters, and conceding that the thought is sometimes so thick-coming and weighty as to give a shadow of obscurity (or call it chiaroscuro) or at least ellipsis at a first reading, I must regard HENRY VAUGHAN as more than the equal of GEORGE HERBERT even in form. In the deeper elements, in the electric flash that does'nt so much tell of Wordsworth's supernal light, as of the fire of genius kindled by the Great Giver alone, and which no mere piety or mere culture can ever send forth—the penetrative seizure of the innermost subtleties of feeling and prisoning them in human speech, such as later was the imperial gift of Shelley—the vision of the mysteries of the Universe, veiled and curtained, fold on fold, to ordinary mortal eyes—the sudden surprise of grand thoughts uttered with the simpleness of a child and as though nothing remarkable, and really to the utterer un-remarkable—the calm footstep and the uplifted eye in the most interior regions of Wonder-land—the transfiguring radiance cast on lowliest things so as to lift the "meanest flower that blows" into fellowship with man—the recognition of the manifold symbolisms of Nature in opposition to mere conceits of analogy put into Nature—the bird-like bursts of abandonment of verbal music that no Thalberg-fingers can simulate—comparison of the "sweet Singer" of The Temple with the poet of Silex Scintillans is to my mind an outrage by every canon of critical estimate. I rejoice that it has been given to me worthily to reproduce for the first time the complete Words of a genius so idiosyncratic, so certain to win capable Readers the more he is studied; and my satisfaction is the truer, in that with all his morbid modesty and depreciation of himself, HENRY VAUGHAN again and again reveals his consciousness of being a Poet concerning whom Posterity should inquire, one whose gift it was to confer immortality. May his beloved USCA, lucent and beautiful to-day as in his day, abide in ever-enduring association with his name: or, adapting MATTHEW ARNOLD'S exquisite tribute to WORDSWORTH, I would address WELSHMEN (if they be not too degenerate in poetic sympathy to enter into it,) thus:
Keep fresh the grass upon his grave,
O Usca! with thy living wave,
Sing him thy best! for few or none,
Hear thy voice right, now he is gone.
George Saintsbury (essay date 1890)
SOURCE: "Caroline Poetry," in A History of Elizabethan Literature, second edition, 1890. Reprint by The Macmillan Company., 1924, pp. 354-93.
[Saintsbury was a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century English literary historian and critic. Hugely prolific, he composed histories of English and European literature as well as numerous critical works on individual authors, styles, and periods. In the following excerpt from the second (1890) edition of his History of Elizabethan Literature (reprinted several times during its publishing history), Saintsbury briefly dismisses Vaughan as a poet lacking sustained poetic skill, depth, and originality.]
Henry Vaughan was born in 1622, published Poems in 1646 (for some of which he afterwards expressed a not wholly necessary repentance), Olor Iscanus (from Isca Silurum) in 1651, and Silex Scintillans, his best-known book, in 1650 and 1656. He also published verses much later, and did not die till 1693, being the latest lived of any man who has a claim to appear in this book, but his aftergrowths were not happy. To say that Vaughan is a poet of one poem would not be true. But the universally known
They are all gone into the world of light
is so very much better than anything else that he has done that it would be hardly fair to quote anything else, unless we could quote a great deal. Like Herbert, and in pretty obvious imitation of him, he set himself to bend the prevailing fancy for quips and quaintnesses into sacred uses, to see that the Devil should not have all the best conceits. But he is not so uniformly successful, though he has greater depth and greater originality of thought.
[In a footnote, Saintsbury adds: "Since this chapter was in type, some persons whose judgment I respect have expressed to me surprise and regret that I have not given a higher and larger place to Henry Vaughan. A higher I cannot give, because I think him, despite the extreme beauty of his thought and (more rarely) of his expression, a most imperfect poet; nor a larger, because that would involve a critical arguing out of the matter, which would be unsuitable to the plan and scale of this book. Had he oftener written as he wrote in the famous poem referred to in the text, or as in the magnificent opening of 'The World'—
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright,
there would be much more to say of him. But he is not master of the expression suitable to his noble and precious thought except in the briefest bursts—bursts compared to which even Crashaw's are sustained and methodical. His admirers claim for 'The Retreat' the germ of Wordsworth's great ode, but if any one will compare the two he will hardly complain that Vaughan has too little space here."]
Louise Imogen Guiney (essay date 1894)
SOURCE: "Henry Vaughan," in A Little English Gallery, Harper and Brothers, 1894, pp. 55-118.
[Guiney was an American poet, literary essayist, and Vaughan scholar who edited and published an edition of The Mount of Olives in 1902. In 1895 she began corresponding with a fellow admirer of Vaughan, Gwenllian Morgan, and together they made plans to publish an edition of Vaughan's poetry, with biographical essays by the editors. This work was not completed during the lifetime of either woman; but after their deaths, the notes they had compiled in preparation were used by F. E. Hutchinson in his definitive Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation (1947). In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1894, Guiney offers high praise for Vaughan as an essentially orthodox Christian poet, comparable in accomplishment to Edmund Spenser.]
It is a saw of Dr. Johnson's that it is impossible for theology to clothe itself in attractive numbers; but then Dr. Johnson was ignorant of Vaughan. It is not in human nature to refuse to cherish the "holy, happy, healthy Heaven" which he has left us (in a graded alliteration which smacks of the physician rather than of the "gloomy sectarian"), his very social "angels talking to a man," and his bright saints, hovering and smiling nigh, who
Who can resist the earnestness and candor with which, in a few sessions, he wrote down the white passion of the last fifty years of his life? No English poet, unless it be Spenser, has a piety so simple and manly, so colored with mild thought, so free from emotional consciousness. The elect given over to continual polemics do not count Henry Vaughan as one of themselves. His double purpose is to make life pleasant to others and to praise God; and he considers that he is accomplishing it when he pens a compliment to the valley grass, or, like Coleridge, caresses in some affectionate strophes the much-abused little ass. All this liberal sweetness and charity heighten Vaughan's poetic quality, as they deepen the impression of his practical Christianity. The nimbus is about his laic songs. When he talks of moss and rocks, it is as if they were incorporated into the ritual. He has the genius of prayer, and may be recognized by "those graces which walk in a veil and a silence." He is full of distinction, and of a sort of golden idiosyncrasy. Vaughan's true "note" is—Vaughan. To read him is like coming alone to a village church-yard with trees, where the west is dying, in hues of lilac and rose, behind the low ivied Norman tower. The south windows are open, the young choir are within, and the organist, with many a hushed unconventional interlude of his own, is rehearsing with them the psalm of "pleasures for evermore."
Francis Thompson (essay date 1897)
SOURCE: "Henry Vaughan," in The Real Robert Louis Stevenson, and Other Critical Essays by Francis Thompson, edited by Rev. Terence L. Connolly, University Publishers Incorporated, 1959, pp. 87-9.
[Thompson was one of the most important poets of the Catholic Revival in nineteenth-century English literature. Often compared to the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets, especially Richard Crashaw, he is best known for his poem "The Hound of Heaven" (1893), which displays his characteristic themes of spiritual struggle, redemption, and transcendent love. Like other writers of the fin de siècle period, Thompson wrote poetry and prose noted for rich verbal effects and a devotion to the values of aestheticism. In the following excerpt from a review (originally published in the Athenaeum in 1897) of E. K. Chambers's Poems of Henry Vaughan, he discusses Vaughan's derivitiveness as a poet, noting the inadequacy of comparisons with Wordsworth and Herbert.]
The poems on which [Vaughan's] fame must rest, Silex Scintillans, appear to have gone through two editions in five years, and then completely to have collapsed. There is no certain trace of any further edition from the seventeenth century until nearly half through the nineteenth century. We doubt whether any poems of like merit can show a like extraordinary eclipse—an eclipse so long and total that it might well seem final. Yet the neglected volume had become operative before its republication, and on no less a poet than Wordsworth. It is now proved that Wordsworth had amongst his books a copy of Silex Scintillans; and the influence of Vaughan's mystical philosophy is clearly visible on Wordsworth's, the influence of Vaughan's poetry evident in many a Wordsworthian passage, particularly in the famous "Intimations of Immortality." Indeed, not only does this contain reminiscences of individual passages in Vaughan, but the whole germ of the great ode is manifestly a certain poem of Vaughan's—the beautiful and most Wordsworth-like "Retreat." The extent to which Vaughan followed Herbert has caused them to be compared. Poem for poem, Vaughan comes ill out of the comparison. Herbert has more of level excellence, is nearer to an artist—though both seem far enough from artists to our modern criticism. There is a more than Wordsworthian waste of dreariness in Vaughan—recompensed, as in Wordsworth, by a flash, a line, a passage, here and there. Very few, too few, are the poems which stand forth as wholes. But when he is touched by that parsimonious inspiration, it is not in Herbert, it is not in Crashaw, it is not in anything of the sixteenth or seventeenth century, that we can find his likeness. His lines then have so instantaneous a magic, make such wonderfulness of everyday words, are so one with the brain of nature, that they cannot be paralleled before the advent of Wordsworth himself….
He is full, too, of strange gleams of poetic intuition into things not yet quite known to science. In one poem he makes solemn use of the idea, not unfamiliar to modern mystical writers, that all man's acts are invisibly photographed on the inanimate things around him: —
Was shown one day in a strange glass
That busy commerce kept between
God and His creatures, though unseen.
They hear, see, speak,
And into loud discoveries break,
As loud as blood….
Hence sand and dust
Are shak'd for witnesses, and stones,
Which some think dead, shall all at once
With one attesting voice detect
The secret sins we least suspect.
For know, wild men, that when you err,
Each thing turns scribe and register….
Like Wordsworth, he "wakens a sort of soul in sense," can give to plain speech mystery and depth which take us by surprise. Felicity starts on us as from an ambush.
Paul Elmer More (essay date 1916)
SOURCE: "Henry Vaughan," in The Demon of the Absolute, Princeton University Press, 1928, pp. 143-64.
[More was an American critic who, along with Irving Babbitt, formulated the doctrines of New Humanism in early twentieth-century American thought. The New Humanists were strict moralists who adhered to traditional conservative values in reaction to an age of scientific and artistic self-expression. In regard to literature, they believed a work's implicit reflection of support for the classic ethical norms to be of as much importance as its aesthetic qualities. In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in the Nation in 1916, More celebrates Vaughan's achievement as a poet of bittersweet spiritual longing in a fallen world.]
There are poets who, by virtue of some affinity of spirit with our own, appeal to us with an intimacy that takes our judgement captive; we go to them in secret, so to speak, and love them beyond the warrant of our critical discernment. Such a poet Henry Vaughan has long been to me, and in undertaking to make an essay on his works … I am fully aware of the risk inherent in the attempt to give a sort of public validity to what ought to be, in Vaughan's own language, "a sweet privacy in a right soul."
The task would be easier if we knew more of the man's life. Yet if there are few events to record, his career is typical of many who pursued the hidden way in that much distracted age.
To understand him, as to understand the other religious poets of the age, we must never forget the dark background of malice, confusion, calumny, and violent change out of which their songs arose. Most of these singers were of the party of Vaughan; they were bound to feel that the victorious iconoclasm of the Puritans was sweeping from them ruthlessly all the comfortable traditions which stayed the inherent restlessness of man's soul, all the symbols which had trained the imagination to take its due share in the act of worship. These things lay heavily upon Vaughan's mind. He was not, in that part of his work which counts, a poet of cheer; neither indeed was Milton on his side, nor any other of those who reflected the turmoil and double defeat of the times.
This dejection we who again look upon a world filled with the alarms of war and the hatred of man for man, and ache for deliverance from "the tedious reign of our calamity"—this darkness of spirit we can comprehend; and I confess that, much as I have always loved Vaughan, the pathos of his cry for civil peace touches me now in a peculiar manner. But there was another source of darkness in Vaughan's mind for which we, with our modern training, are not so ready to feel sympathy—I mean the shade of life itself, the sorrow and discontent that are caused by no accidental evils of an age but are inherent in the very conditions of mortal existence. In these latter years we have been caught in a kind of conspiracy of silence on this matter, until, as it sometimes seems, we have become cowards to the truth. Our modern books are filled with complaints against society and government as these are organized, and against the failure of institutions and the inadequacy of traditional beliefs, but it is really astonishing how seldom any writer dares to touch on the crude imperfections and cruel necessities that always have been, and must always be, the law of life; to speak with any frankness of these bitter facts is frowned upon as disloyalty to the popular dogma of progress and perfectibility, or as ignorance of those implications of cosmic evolution which command us to be credulous only of good. How then shall we feel ourselves at home with those moralists who took a sort of savage delight in spreading before our eyes the blacker side of man's natural feebleness and perversity? Yet we quite misunderstand such a poet as Vaughan, if we turn from him as from one essentially gloomy and depressing. The joy in him still overrides the gloom, the joy that came to him, as it can only come to a man then or at any time, from lifting his eyes out of these shades and flickering lights to the radiance of another sun, and to the possession of a peace that is not of earth:
Such is the great note of Vaughan and of his contemporaries in their moments of inspiration, purer and higher in Vaughan than in any other, though not so powerfully sustained as in Milton; and it is the occasional occurrence of this note that makes the religious poetry of the period, despite its mass of fumbling attempts, something unique in English literature. Faint echoes or distorted repetitions of it you will catch in Whittier and Newman and Francis Thompson and other poets of the nineteenth century; but the glorious courage and assurance, the pure joy, the full flight against the sun, you will meet nowhere in England since the Revolution, with the new politics, brought in the grey reign of naturalism.
It is not to be supposed that Vaughan rose often to this height, nor, indeed, do we who have long prized him in private rest our affection on the few poems in which he shows himself a master of his craft. As with most of the writers of the day, there is much of the careless amateur in his method: he lacked self-criticism, failed to distinguish between what was commonplace and what was exquisite in his perceptions, and even in his moments of inspiration left the labour of expression too much to chance; as a whole his achievement is sadly at loose ends. But he never forgot or misrepresented himself, and it is his constant betrayal of a rare personality, his adjustments to life, the sincere variation of his moods, his faithful expectation of the coming of the light, that draw us back to his books again and again and lend a peculiar interest to poems which we should find it hard to recommend to unwilling ears. It is the man Vaughan, who dwelt by the river Usk and himself walked in the valley with God, we seek always, not the artist; and if we admit readily that this is not the attitude we take towards those who have achieved an invulnerable position, yet we love him none the less. Naturally this quality of his work cannot be exhibited in a specimen or two; nevertheless, so far as this may be done, I would point to the artless charm of such a poem as "The Bee," and particularly to such lines in it as these:
Hail crystal fountains and fresh shades!
Where no proud look invades,
No busy worldling hunts away
The sad retirer all the day!
Hail, happy, harmless solitude!
Our sanctuary from the rude
And scornful world; the calm recess
Of faith, and hope, and holiness!
Here something still like Eden looks;
Honey in woods, juleps in brooks;
And flowers, whose rich unrifled sweets
With a chaste kiss the cool dew greets.
When the toils of the day are done,
And the tired world sets with the sun,
Here flying winds and flowing wells
Are the wise watchful hermit's bells;
Their busy murmurs all the night
To praise or prayer do invite,
And with an awful sound arrest
And piously employ the breast.
When in the east the dawn doth blush,
Here cool, fresh spirits the air brush;
Herbs straight get up, flowers peep and spread,
Trees whisper praise, and bow the head;
Birds, from the shades of night releast,
Look round about, then quit the nest,
And with united gladness sing
The glory of the morning's King.
The hermit hears, and with meek voice
Offers his own up, and their joys;
Then prays that all the world may be
Blest with as sweet an unity.
If such a passage makes no appeal to you, why, then it doesn't; but one can perhaps hint at certain qualities in it which endear the writer to some of us. In the first place we feel here the reality of the divine immanence in nature which everywhere speaks in Vaughan's verse, and which curiously enough, paradoxically you may say, comes to poignant expression only in those who deplore the natural world as fallen from Grace and given over to the powers of evil. It is he who believes in a paradise lost, actual or symbolical—
it is he who sees that about the world the "curtains are close-drawn," who will also, by some strange legerdemain of the human heart, draw away the veil from your eyes and show you the truth of the everlasting mythology:
But to return to the lines of "The Bee" which we have taken as typical of the retired life, we may note in them something more specific than the feeling of a man who, by submission to the divine will, re-creates for himself a lost paradise; they direct us to a peculiarity of the imagination, a habit of mind, which Vaughan shared indeed with the other poets of his day, but possessed to a degree that marks a real distinction. Simcox, in his introduction to the selection in Ward's English Poets, calls attention to the prominence of the dawn, "the awe of the freshness of morning among the Welsh mountains," in Vaughan's reflexions on nature. The observation is just; but it was not so much the beauty of the morning in itself that seems to have impressed the poet as its contrast with the hours of darkness past. I am sure that Vaughan, something of a valetudinarian we know, was often sleepless, and sometimes in these wakeful seasons felt the presence of the stars as a "host of spies" stealing out from heaven, and was entranced by the palpable nearness of the spirit world in the silence and abstraction of visible things:
At other times Vaughan seems to have been oppressed by the thought of the suspension of life through these hours, as if Nature nightly retired into a tomb, from which she could be aroused only by the miraculous voice of her Creator. Out of these nocturnal meditations, being an early riser, he went forth to view the dawn, already quickened in spirit, as he would say, by the celestial dews, or ready to join the "hymning circulations" at the spectacle of the earth's perpetual rebirth. In such a mood he could scarcely walk abroad without looking for the promised coming of his Lord:
It is hard for me to leave these things: there is so much more that I could say from my long reading of Vaughan—how, for example, his characteristic ideas of nature are associated together like a golden chain, link with link, so that the sight of a withered flower would remind him of the morning freshness, and this thought would lift his eyes to the hills of his valley from which the dew was supposed to fall, and beyond these to the light that appeared to stream from the mountain of God:
I fear that this will seem but a straggling set of rhymes to anyone whose judgement is not already bribed in their favour. As for myself, I cannot quote them without a vivid recollection of a certain "white day" when, walking alone on the bank of the Usk, I myself saw such a sapless flower in a dry spot, and for the rest of my way went piecing together what I could recall of Vaughan's lines.
It is thus we of the brotherhood find our pleasure in these poems, not because of their perfection as works of art, but because of a certain transparent honesty in them which enables us to enter into the privacy of a singularly beautiful spirit. Again, not a dominating spirit: Vaughan was not one of the stalwarts of the age, not a Milton, not even a Falkland, but one who shrank almost pathetically from contention and the noise of tongues. But neither was there anything to reprobate in his flight from the world, unless we think that all men are called to fight in the hour of desperation. There was nothing, or at least very little, of Crashaw's morbid substitution of religious emotion for the plain duties of life; no taint of self-indulgence in voluptuous sensation or relaxing revery. Nature was a retreat for him, but he found there the visible presence of a God who had not laid aside His commands and prohibitions; the impulse to compose came to him chiefly, we think, in the fresh breath of morning, when he set out from home on his errands to the sick and suffering. And if his verse lacks finish, it has yet the substance of poetry which was the birthright of that age. Sometimes it has more than that. Suddenly, as if by a divine accident, he will reach a strain—a single line, or group of lines, it may be—which startles the reader, as the ear is caught by a few notes of piercing melody breaking through a monotonous chant. In the midst of rather commonplace reflexions he will unexpectedly gather up the meaning of life in a sharp pregnant image, such as this:
Where frail visibles rule the mind,
And present things find men most kind;
Where obscure cares the mean defeat,
And splendid vice destroys the great—
And how of death we make
A mere mistake.
Or he will celebrate the sweet influences of a holy life:
or in slower measure will praise the gift of Sir Thomas Bodley to Oxford, and express in memorable language the gratitude of all readers for the preservation of good books:
And in this age, as sad almost as thine,
Thy stately consolatiöns are mine.
These are not the accidents that come to a little man; and occasionally Vaughan's performance is even greater. Once or twice he will sustain this elevation from the beginning to the end, producing a thing as exquisitely perfect as "The Retreat," which certainly helped Wordsworth in the composition of his famous ode, and, strange juxtaposition, may have been in the mind of James Thomson (B. V.) when he wrote one of the most haunting cantos of The City of Dreadful Night; or rising to the bold flight of those stanzas, unnamed, than which there is nothing purer and deeplier felt, nothing truer to the strangely mingled exaltation and humility of sound religion, nothing more superb, in the sacred literature of our English speaking people:
Edmund Blunden (essay date 1927)
SOURCE: "On the Poems of Henry Vaughan," in On the Poems of Henry Vaughan: Characteristics and Intimations, Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1927, pp. 7-49.
[Blunden was associated with the Georgians, an early twentieth-century group of English poets who reacted against the prevalent contemporary mood of disillusionment and the rise of artistic modernism by seeking to return to the pastoral, nineteenth-century poetic traditions associated with William Wordsworth. In this regard, much of Blunden's poetry reflects his love of the sights, sounds, and ways of rural England. As a literary critic and essayist, he often wrote of the lesser-known figures of the Romantic era and of the pleasures of English country life. In the following excerpt, he praises Vaughan's metaphysical nature poetry in superlative terms, judging Vaughan superior to George Herbert in poetic accomplishment. Upon publication, Blunden's essay drew critical scorn from T. S. Eliot.]
Wherever the question of the survival of the best in poetry without the assistance of biographers and popularisers is being debated, the instance of Henry Vaughan should not be left out. His present fame is one of the best practical arguments for the belief that the good thing is strong enough to pass through all the obstacles and shadows of a period into a permanent and conspicuous renown.
Campion, Traherne, Christopher Smart, Blake, Clare—these all reveal at a glance the mysterious silent evolution of poetic fame, and Vaughan is with them, illustrating perhaps more vividly than the others the same strangely beautiful theme, the seed growing secretly….
[In] Silex Scintillans and what few subsequent "pious thoughts and ejaculations" Vaughan gives us, we see the poet more and more in his garden, perhaps not only contemplating, but also supplying his "dispensatorie" with herbs and flowers. There is no great obstacle to imagining that his rides and walks into the lonelier parts of the district, bearing physic and piety for his patients, brought him into closer intimacy with nature and landscape, of which also we discern a deeper and more varied spirit in his latter pages. The Vaughan landscape is inimitable. Its clouds are so fleecy, its winds so eager to address and arouse man, its sunbeams so vital, its pasturing life so unalarmed and unalterable, that it needs no signature. Probably the inhabitants of his native vale could recognise the geography of it—"that drowsie Lake", the water-fall "where often I have sate", the "clear heights" which beacon it above the storm, "this restless, vocal Spring", are all from the life. And his birds and flowers too must be still familiar by the Usk, unless the raven has left his ancient rock. Rocks and caves are permitted to lend a terrible (and allegorical) aspect to this landscape now and then; "mists and shadows hatch" from the low grounds, and in one of his master-pieces there is a famous gloomy grove.
But what are these? —mere proofs of his conquering radiance and calm. Vaughan's year has no winter; "the frosts are past." If storms come over, the rainbow enchants them; rain that falls there is "warm summer rain" as sweet as honey. The shadows are seldom more sinister than lilyshades. The mountain-top is twinkling with blossom. Over all, through all, light beams and smiles and purifies: "and, I pray, are not light and life compatriots?" It is original light which inspires him, and hence he is not among the exceeding admirers of the moon, but to the sun and stars he makes his tireless response, from "fresh, spicie mornings" to "calme, golden Evenings" and through nights in which even "one twinkling ray shot o'er some cloud" is often a joy. The happy brilliance springing from poem after poem is no other than the white radiance of Eternity, and if one would attempt some account of Vaughan's starry, fountained, infinite dream, one might fairly say that he has a Shelleian quickness and farness about him.
With that are ever compacted and connoted a simple humanity and common charity, Vaughan's daily self plodding along the flinty track. His kind watchfulness must have worked inestimable good among the cottages. We see his nature perfectly in such a detail (unobserved by himself) as his frequent introduction of a ruined dwelling to symbolize his own unworthiness. He was no stranger to
In his "Rules and Lessons" his wholesome affection for the small calls and wants of life is displayed without reserve, and we seem to be accompanying him on his round, from enemy to fried, from cottage to inn, and home to lamplit reflection. Our love for him, warmed by this picture of humility in action, is even increased by those poems in which he speaks with nature familiarly and reverently—"The Bird", "Cock-crowing", "The Book", "The Ass", "Palm-Sunday". Harmlessness, unquestioning reliance on Providence, a simple cleanness and wellbeing—these things delight him, and the consciousness that there is a sense in a bird or a bee which man has almost lost adds a mystical quality to this Franciscan companionship.
In the union of the temporal with the immortal, this world and the world beyond, Vaughan obtains an early hold upon his reader, and is able to suggest strange and celestial concords by the simplest references to daily experience here. Simplicity is a perfection arising from so complicated an interflow of gifts and decisions that criticism seldom endeavours to analyse it. I shall not. I know, and passionately and amazedly rejoice in, the greatness of the poet who can produce "the Platonic reminiscence" in semblance of a child sweetheart, that has not yet
A mile or two from his first love.
Such a flower of ages is not a stroke of luck in Vaughan, but again and again he shows us how easy it is to call up spirits. His tears insist in heaven, and
As rain here at our windows beats,
Chide in thine Ears;
he is sure that the Second Coming will be in the hour of dawn, because that is the natural time:
Stars now vanish without number,
Sleepie Planets set and slumber,
The pursie Clouds disband and scatter,
All expect some sudden matter;
Not one beam triumphs, but from far
As we read, the star seems about to break forth into the personal annunciation of God. Who but this Vaughan writes so often of the present deity—and even whimsically, from his rare festivity, complains
If thou steal in amidst the mirth
And kindly tell me, I am Earth,
I shut thee out, and let that slip;
Such Musick spoils good fellowship?
or have we among our delimited, penetrative and scientifically equipped poetic enquirers any that finds greater significance in a day's march than Vaughan in "The Shower":
Waters above! Eternal springs!
The dew that silvers the Dove's wings!
This man going about the countryside alone, who laments the age when man had speech with angels, but who seems to us to have come very close to the mystery so described, can have had little desire to publish his poems at all, and probably that is the reason why his ars poetica is not so great as his inspiration and exaltation. His verse is chiefly the intimate record of his spiritual life. It never aimed for the laurels of reputation. We receive it therefore with all its imperfections, driftings of argument, weakenings of phrase, disjunctions of rhythm, and often a decline from some sublime opening to pedestrian insipidity. Admiration for Herbert's adroit cats'-cradles of versification sometimes caused Vaughan to imitate with unhappy results, as in the clockwork versicles at the end of "The Search". In metre Vaughan had one vital gift and no more: for iambic verse, and particularly for the eight-syllable couplet. This measure, of which he is a master, conveys the majority of his finest ideas. Its quick yet strong flow apparently suited with the rate of his deciphering mood into language, distilling language into poetic elixir. So long as he is employing octosyllables his thought advances vigorously and clearly, and is strengthened by apt modifications of accent and sound. Nothing could be more expressive than (in their contexts) the shortened line describing his realization that stones are not dead matter:
They héar, sée, spéak.
that in "Childe-hood" suddenly questioning,
Wh'y should mén lóve
A wolf more than a Lamb or Dove?
There are several of these powerful abruptnesses in "Abel's blood":
Sad, purple well! whose bubling eye
Did first against a Murth'rer cry;
Whose streams still vocal still complain
Of bloody Cain—
What a vehemence is in that ending!
In respect of vocabulary and general use of language Vaughan anticipates the theory of Wordsworth, selecting from the language of the ordinary man, and having the air of one addressing us not through a book but rather by word of mouth. This is in keeping with his poetical creed (such a phrase, though convenient, scarcely has to do with Vaughan), with his philosophy of life altogether,
The creature's Jubilee; God's parle with dust;
Heaven here; Man on those hills of Myrrh and flowers;
he will not need high-sounding expressions, but discover the gleam in ordinary ones. His achievements are almost always spoken in the idiom of good conversation, as,
If he goes beyond this diction, it is in such a page where his especial hint or illustration is derived from a scientific or technical source, and so requires a special term; occasionally he uses a Latinism, as "voices" in the sense of "opinions"; and where intensity requires a flash of audacity he will often seize a noun and make it a verb; so Christ "heavened their walks," or was not too proud to "inn" with man; so the dew of regeneration "Blonds and Spirits all my Earth."
It has been common to couple the name of Vaughan with that of Herbert, his admired example, and certainly the list of verbal transferences from The Temple to the rougher edifice of Silex Scintillans is a long one. But despite those marks of an early fascination and initiation, despite Vaughan's repeated tributes to "Mr. George Herbert of blessed memory; See his incomparable prophetick Poems, and particularly these, Church-musick, Church-rents, and schisms, The Church militant," still time begins to distinguish between the master's ingenuity and the pupil's genius. Herbert seems to be usually concerned with putting things quaintly; his piety is running an obstacle race; no doubt God is the prize, but our attention is too much occupied with the feats and acrobatics on the course. Moreover, the object of his journey is God according to vestry arrangements; a noble ideal, far finer than the blurred unvision of many of us, but narrow in comparison with Vaughan's solar, personal, firmamental, flower-whispering, rainbow-browed, ubiquitous, magnetic Love. The elaborateness of Herbert's poetry cannot help him across the space between his sectarian purity and trust and that conjunction of all thoughts, all passions, all delights, that consciousness of the innumerable affinities of created and creator, of an advance of the entire fabric towards one serene and supreme discovery. "O knowing, glorious Spirit!" So one would perhaps borrow from Vaughan's verses a phrase to do justice to his memory; but the certainty instantly supervenes that no such attribution could please him, and that he was content to leave his body "above the voiceful windlings of a river" with [an] unselfish sole epilogue on its sheltering stone….
T. S. Eliot (essay date 1927)
SOURCE: "The Silurist," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 9, September, 1927, pp. 259-63.
[Perhaps the most influential poet and critic to write in the English language during the first half of the twentieth century, Eliot is closely identified with many of the qualities denoted by the term Modernism: experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his or her creation. He introduced a number of terms and concepts that strongly affected critical thought in his lifetime, among them the idea that poets must be conscious of the living tradition of literature in order for their work to have artistic and spiritual validity. In general, Eliot upheld values of traditionalism and discipline, and in 1928 he annexed Christian theology to his overall conservative world view. Of his criticism, he stated: "It is a by-product of my private poetry-workshop: or a prolongation of the thinking that went into the formation of my verse." In the following excerpt from a review of Edmund Blunden's On the Poems of Henry Vaughan: Characteristics and Intimations (1927), Eliot comments about various aspects of Vaughan's poetic accomplishment, taking issue throughout with Blunden 's inflated view of it.]
There is apt to prevail a critical misconception about any poet who is also suspected of being a mystic. The question whether a poet is a mystic is not, for literary criticism, a question at all. The question is, how far are the poetry and the mysticism one thing? Poetry is mystical when it intends to convey, and succeeds in conveying, to the reader (at the same time that it is real poetry) the statement of a perfectly definite experience which we call the mystical experience. And if it is real poetry it will convey this experience in some degree to every reader who genuinely feels it as poetry. Instead of being obscure, it will be pellucid. I do not care to deny that good poetry can be at the same time a sort of cryptogram of a mysticism only visible to the initiate; only, in that case, the poetry and the mysticism will be two different things. Some readers have professed to discover in Vaughan the traces of an hermetic philosophy of profound depths. It may be there; if so, it belongs not to literature but to cryptography. The mystical element in Vaughan which belongs to his poetry is there for any one to see;
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Alvarez, A. "The Poetry of Religious Experience: II. Henry Vaughan." In his The School of Donne, pp. 91-98. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961.
Examines Vaughan as a crafter of original "poetry of experience with devotional themes": poetry which "rises from a single, intense moment of perception and concerns the poet's reaction to the object, rather than the object itself."
Calhoun, Thomas O. Henry Vaughan: The Achievement of "Silex Scintillons". Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981, 265 p.
Examines Vaughan's accomplishment in Silex Scintillons, concluding that the "shocks,...
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