They Are All Gone into the World of Light!

by Henry Vaughan
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

“They Are All Gone into the World of Light!” considered one of English poet Henry Vaughan’s best poems, consists of ten stanzas of quatrains altering lines of iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter. The poem deals with Vaughan’s mystical revelations concerning such Christian topics as death, eternal life, faith, God as Father/Creator. An important feature of the poem is a traditional Christian contrast between a better “other world” and this life as a “vale of tears.”

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The poem begins as a lament: “They” have departed the poet’s world for a “world of light,” presumably the Christian heaven, while the poet remains, abandoned and unable to join those whom he desperately wishes to join. During the course of the poem, the poet’s lament over this separation (from whom, specifically, is never stated) shifts to contemplation about what that other world must be like (“What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust/ Could man outlook that mark!”) and ultimately a plea to the “Father of eternal life” to “Resume [his] spirit from this world of thrall/ Into true liberty.” As befits the theme of separation and departure, the entire poem is studded with contrasts that mark the division between the poet in his dark, befogged world and the departed’s world of light. Intellectual inquiry and wonder over the mystery of the holy realm contrast with frustration in the final stanzas, where the poet demands that God either answer his doubts or take him to where he can find out for himself.

Despite his fleeting visions of the departed “walking in an air of glory,” the poet craves certainty as to what happens to people after death. The first four verses of the poem contrast his momentary vision of the dead in a “world of light” with his own earthly existence, which is “at best but dull and hoary.” The poet speculates that he may have been allowed these heavenly glimpses to “kindle my cold love.” The fifth stanza changes direction to probe into the mystery of “beauteous Death”—an image that, paradoxically, joins darkness with light:

Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,Shining nowhere, but in the dark;What mysteries do lie beyond thy dustCould man outlook that mark!

The structure of the poem here suddenly makes the equation of “death” and “light” evident to the poem’s listener, if not the poem’s speaker himself: Death occupies the same position as the “world of light,” “air of glory,” “glow,” “glitter,” and “holy Hope” of previous stanzas; Death even “shines” (in the dark) and is recognized as a pathway (dust) rather than a final end.

The sixth stanza emphasizes this mystery by drawing an analogy between the poet’s question and the fact that a person can realize a bird has flown its nest but not know where it has flown. Stanza seven admits the possibility of another dimension, heaven, of which, in sleep, mortals are granted a “peep.” The eighth stanza moves from intellectual inquiry and recognition of the irrational to faith when the poet speculates that if a star were locked in a tomb, it would be invisible to him but nevertheless would burn and ultimately shine when released.

The last two stanzas directly address a traditionally Christian God, “O Father of eternal life.” The poet asks God to free him from “the world of thrall,” presumably from earthly limitations. The poem’s conclusion thunders with the demand that God either show him clearly what lies beyond—in an allusion to Paul’s expression “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face-to-face”—or else take him to heaven where he “shall need no glass.”

“They Are All Gone into the World of Light!” rests on light and dark imagery. As is Vaughan’s custom, the spiritual visions are expressed in words that denote light. The dead are shining; the beyond is a realm of light; angels bring “brighter dreams.” Nouns such as “sun,” “stars,” “flames,” and “beams” are used in connection with the soul. Even death is a “jewel” as far as the righteous are concerned. Verbs such as “glows,” “glitters,” “glimmering,” “shining,” and “shine,” further emphasize the happier state of those in “the world of light” and contrast with the “thrall,” “gloomy grove,” “decays,” and mists of earthbound life.

The poet’s mix of iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter evokes a conversational tone. The pentameter is sometimes varied with anapests and the trimester punctuated with an extra syllable. This irregularity serves to break up any rhythmic monotony in which content is obscured by pattern. The poem is saved from platitude by alternating mystical revelation with intellectual curiosity, and by expressing a frustration with ambiguity.

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