The Poetry of Vaughan

by Henry Vaughan
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1847

Henry Vaughan is best known as a religious poet, a follower of the metaphysical tradition of John Donne and George Herbert, and a precursor of William Wordsworth in his interest in the ideas of the seventeenth century Platonists. The Platonist philosophers emphasized humanity’s innate good, the innocent wisdom of childhood, and the possibility of mystical union with God. Like Donne, Vaughan turned to religious poetry relatively late in his career; he was a law student in London, and his first volume of verse, Poems, reveals his close reading of the popular court poets of the age of Charles I.

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A number of Vaughan’s early poems are love lyrics addressed to Amoret, probably an imaginary lady. They show little originality, though they are competent, pleasant, polished works. Even at this stage in his development Vaughan was a skillful metrist, able to create many different effects through a variety of verse forms. His sentiments and images are typical of the age; his passion is strictly “platonic.” It is the lady’s soul he loves, though he complains that she is as heartless and unyielding as the ladies addressed by the other Cavalier poets. Cupid, the cruel god of love, plays a major part in many of Vaughan’s lyrics, as he does in the works of writers like Ben Jonson and Thomas Randolph, to whom the poet acknowledges his debt.

There are, among the imitative and undistinguished lines of these poems, flashes of that gift of language that makes some of Vaughan’s later lyrics rank high among the verses of his century.

If, Amoret, that glorious Eye, In the first birth of light,  And death of Night,Had with those elder fires you spy  Scatter’d so high Received form, and sight;We might suspect in the vast Ring, Amidst these golden glories,  And fierie stories;Whether the Sun had been the King,  And guide of Day, Or your brighter eye should sway.

The comparison of the lady’s brightness to that of the sun is commonplace, but the poet’s vision of the night sky is his own.

Poems included, in addition to the typically Carolinian love lyrics, an amusing description of London night life that ended with a drinking song and a translation of Juvenal’s tenth satire. Vaughan’s translation reads smoothly, but it suffers greatly by comparison with Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” an adaptation of the same Latin poem. Though both English poets used iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, Vaughan’s extended verse paragraphs have little of the pointed conciseness that the eighteenth century poet gave to the form. Satire was, in any case, quite foreign to Vaughan’s temperament, and he wisely turned his attention to other subjects in his later works.

Most of the poems in Olor Iscanus were written in the mid-1640’s; they also show the influence of poets of the preceding generation. Most of the poems are epistles to Vaughan’s acquaintances on a variety of occasions: the publication of a volume of plays, an invitation to dinner, or the marriage of friends. The influence of Ben Jonson’s poetry is clear in these works, as well as in the two elegies on Vaughan’s friends who met their deaths in war. There are echoes of Jonson’s famous poem on the death of Sir Henry Morison in “An Elegy on the Death of Mr. R. W. slain in the late unfortunate differences at Routon Heath, near Chester.”

     Though in so short a spanHis riper thoughts had purchas’d more of manThan all those worthless livers, which yet quick,Have quite outgone their own Arithmetick.He seiz’d perfections, and without a dullAnd mossy gray possess’d a solid skull.

Vaughan’s limitations as an elegiac poet are clear when one compares the following lines from Jonson on a similar subject:

It is not growing like a treeIn bulk doth make man better be;Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere;A lily of a dayIs Fairer far in May,Although it fall and die that night,It was the plant and flower of light.In small proportions we just beauties see;And in short measures, life may perfect be.

One of the most pleasant poems in Olor Iscanus is the one addressed “To the River Isca,” from which the volume takes its name. This pastoral, reflective lyric, filled with the traditional images of “gentle swains,” “beauteous nymphs,” and “bubbling springs and gliding streams,” promises fame to the river through the poetry it inspired in Vaughan.

Had Vaughan’s career ended with Olor Iscanus, he would probably have ranked with the very minor Cavalier poets. However, some event, or combination of events, perhaps the death of a beloved younger brother, brought about his religious conversion, and he found his true poetic voice in the works that appeared in the first part of Silex Scintillans. Vaughan’s debt to Herbert is evident in many of the poems; he followed Herbert’s example in experimenting with various stanza forms and unusual patterns of syntax. Vaughan’s “Sundays,” like Herbert’s “Prayer,” consists exclusively of phrases describing the title word.

Bright shadows of true Rest! some shoots of bliss,     Heaven once a week;The next world’s gladness prepossessed in this;     A day to seek;Eternity in time; the steps by whichWe Climb above all ages; Lamps that lightMan through his heap of dark days; and the rich,And full redemption of the whole weeks flight.

A number of Vaughan’s themes also seem to have been drawn from Herbert’s poetry, among them the ceremonies of the Church, the celebration of important days in the Christian year, and the constantly emphasized relationship of human repentance and God’s grace. What stands out as uniquely Vaughan’s is the sense of innocence and joy that pervades much of his work. Although at some times he seems strongly aware of sin and the need for penitence, at others his Platonism seems to obliterate his consciousness of evil and he writes simple, joyous lyrics like the following:

My Soul, there is a Country Far beyond the stars,Where stands a winged Sentry All skillful in the wars,There above noise, and danger Sweet peace sits crown’d with smiles,And one born in a Manger Commands the Beauteous files,He is thy gracious friend, And (O my Soul awake!)Did in pure love descend To die here for thy sake.

A poem often discussed in connection with Wordsworth’s immortality ode is “The Retreat,” in which Vaughan’s Platonism is particularly evident. He refers to the glorious vision of God he preserved in his childhood and to his closeness to nature, which seemed to take him back to that heaven he inhabited before his birth.

Happy those early dayes! when IShin’d in my Angel-infancy.Before I understood this placeAppointed for my second race,Or taught my soul to fancy oughtBut a white, Celestial thought,When yet I had not walked aboveA mile, or two, from my first love,And looking back (at that short space,)Could see a glimpse of his bright-face;When on some gilded Cloud, or flowerMy gazing soul would dwell an hour,And in those weaker glories spySome shadows of eternity.

Some of Vaughan’s other poems are far less sanguine about the human condition. “The World,” whose opening lines, “I saw Eternity the other night like a great Ring of pure and endless light,” are among the poet’s most famous, pictures human beings as greedy and self-seeking: “the darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,” “the fearful miser on a heap of rust,” “the downright Epicure.” The poet comments on the folly of those who reject salvation, who “prefer dark night before true light.”

Another theme that seems to have fascinated Vaughan was the relationship of body and soul. Unlike the medieval poets who presented two forces pulling in opposite directions, the soul toward God and the body toward the gratification of physical desires, Vaughan sees them as harmonious, concerned chiefly about that period of separation between death and the resurrection. In “Resurrection and Immortality,” the soul reassures the body, as if it were a frightened child, that all will be well.

     Like some spruce Bride,Shall one day rise, and cloth’d with shining light     All pure, and bright Re-marry to the soul, for ’tis most plain Thou [the body] only fall’st to be refin’d again.

It is difficult to pinpoint characteristic images in Vaughan’s poetry as a whole, for he varies his language with his theme. However, his use of light, brightness, the sun, and the stars to reflect his sense of the glory of God is especially memorable. There is a particularly interesting variation on this typically Platonic use of light in the poem entitled “Night.”

 There is in God (some say)A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men hereSay it is late and dusky, because they  See not all clear; O for that night! where I in him Might live invisible and dim.

Vaughan makes effective use of commonplace images in a number of his poems. He builds one around the analogy between the root, lying dormant in the ground before it can appear clothed in new loveliness in the spring, and the buried body, preparing in death for the resurrection. In “Man,” he describes the human condition in the language of weaving.

 He knocks at all doors, strays and roams,Nay hath not so much wit as some stones haveWhich in the darkest nights point to their homes, By some hid sense their Maker gave;Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest And passage through these loomsGod order’d motion, but ordain’d no rest.

Vaughan never entirely abandoned the poetic diction of some of the poems in Olor Iscanus, and his last volume, Thalia Rediviva, contains several works approaching the neoclassical manner of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham. It should be noted, however, that many of these “late” poems were actually written many years before their publication, before Vaughan had done his best work.

Vaughan’s religious poems are seldom brilliant throughout; he was a writer whose genius showed itself more fully in single fine lines than in sustained thoughts. However, his ability to convey a sense of personal feeling in his meditations, which sometimes reflect his moods of ecstasy, sometimes his melancholy view of humanity’s rejection of salvation, makes his works moving in their entirety. His natural bent seems to have been more toward an exalted, visionary state than toward depression, for it is in the poems describing his joy that he is generally at his best. His sense of sin and struggle seems more often imitative of Herbert’s poetry than drawn from his own feelings. Vaughan’s work provides an interesting bridge between the intense struggle for personal faith that fills the poetry of Donne and Herbert and the ecstatic paeans of Richard Crashaw and Thomas Traherne.

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