Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Henry Vaughan's "The World," first published in 1650, may be classified as a metaphysical poem in that it encourages mankind to embrace spiritual concerns and forget materialistic greed.
The poem is a response to, or extension of, a biblical verse which sometimes is cited at the beginning of the poem, which reads:
For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:16–17)
This biblical verse, like Vaughan's poem, advises readers to scorn "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life," all of which is fleeting and insubstantial, and to embrace instead "the will of God."
In the opening stanza of "The World," Vaughan begins by offering a vision of a spiritual world which is "of pure and endless light" and which is "All calm, as it (is) bright." In the second half of the stanza, this heavenly vision is juxtaposed with the image of a "doting lover" who, preoccupied with the trappings of a materialistic world, is deeply unhappy. Indeed, the lover is caught in "the silly snares of pleasure" and lays down with his "dear treasure" all around him and cries "Upon a flow'r." The "dear treasure" here likely refers to the bodies of his lovers. The implication is that the simple, natural beauty of a flower is a much greater treasure than the pleasures of the flesh. The lover weeps because he has forgotten the beauty of the flower.
The second stanza focuses on the figure of the "darksome statesman," who seems to personify much that Vaughan considers to be wrong about mankind. The statesman is metaphorically weighed down "with weights and woe," and he moves slowly through "a thick midnight fog." The implication is that his trivial, worldly concerns weigh him down and cloud his vision. He has become so preoccupied with the physical world that he is now blind to the beauty of the metaphysical world.
The third stanza focuses on another figure, a "fearful miser," who is equally as pitiable as the statesman in the second stanza. The miser is covetous, and "lives / In fear of thieves." He is a precursor of Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge. Like the statesman, the miser is blind to the metaphysical world, caught up instead with amassing material wealth.
In the first part of the final stanza, Vaughan describes those who endeavor to embrace the metaphysical world. These people "weep and sing." They weep because they cannot fully escape the material world, but they sing in anticipation of the metaphysical world they are aware of and one day hope to be fully a part of. They are not, like the miser and the statesman, blind to the metaphysical world.
In the second half of the final stanza, Vaughan pities those who "prefer dark night / Before true light." The "dark night" is a metaphorical allusion to the physical, material world that so many men become so blindly obsessed with. The "true light," on the other hand, is an allusion to the spiritual, metaphysical world. Vaughan begins and ends the poem with an image of this heavenly light, suggesting that the spiritual world surrounds and transcends the physical world.