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.
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...
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