Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The theme of “The World” is religious and didactic. Readers need not search long to understand Vaughan’s intention, as he employs hard-hitting imagery of salvation and damnation. The postscript from John 2 reiterates the poem’s meaning.

Vaughan’s theme is that salvation and eternal life, peace and happiness, exist only through God. Life not devoted to God is ruined now and forever. The way to salvation is evident: The vain pursuits of this life must be abandoned. At issue for Vaughan are lives devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, exemplified by the lover; the pursuit of power, embodied in the “darksome States-man”; and the pursuit of wealth, represented by the miser. Vaughan derides these figures, their activities and values, as false, destructive, and ultimately futile.

The central problem in all these ungodly pursuits is that they fail to address the main purpose of living, the worship of God. Lives that do not address this end become bogged down in search of other ends that have no lasting significance and are therefore worthless. The power seeker, the money worshiper, even the lover, fail, not only in terms of their own personal happiness and possible redemption, but also by inflicting their desires on others, to whom they cause harm because their activities are not informed with God-centered values.

Those who do not understand this fundamental religious and moral truth are blind and doomed to live in a moral, spiritual, and religious darkness. In the terms of the poem, the mass of humanity is bound to suffer this fate. Only the enlightened few who recognize the promise of salvation are capable of freeing themselves from this ultimate condition of desolation. The poet seems to say, “Reader, wake up. Salvation awaits those who repent as surely as eternal damnation awaits those who do not.”