Analysis of Henry Vaughan’s Poems

Henry Vaughan’s first collection, Poems, is very derivative; in it can be found borrowings from Donne, Jonson, William Hobington, William Cartwright, and others. It contains only thirteen poems in addition to the translation of Juvenal. Seven poems are written to Amoret, believed to idealize the poet’s courtship of Catherine Wise, ranging from standard situations of thwarted and indifferent love to this sanguine couplet in “To Amoret Weeping”: “Yet whilst Content, and Love we joyntly vye,/ We have a blessing which no gold can buye.” Perhaps in “Upon the Priorie Grove, His Usuall Retirement,” Vaughan best captures the promise of love accepted and courtship rewarded even by eternal love:

So there again, thou ‘It see us move
In our first Innocence, and Love:
And in thy shades, as now, so then
Wee’le kisse, and smile, and walke again.

The lines move with the easy assurance of one who has studied the verses of the urbane Tribe of Ben. That other favorite sport of the Tribe—after wooing—was drink, and in “A Rhapsodie, Occasionally written upon a meeting with some friends at the Globe Taverne, . . .” one sees the poet best known for his devout poems celebrating with youthful fervor all the pleasures of the grape and rendering a graphic slice of London street life. Though imitative, this little volume possesses its own charm. Perhaps it points to the urbane legal career that Vaughan might have pursued had not the conflicts of church and state driven him elsewhere.

Olor Iscanus

The poet of Olor Iscanus is a different man, one who has returned from the city to the country, one who has seen the face of war and defeat. Nowhere in his writing does Vaughan reject the materials of his poetic apprenticeship in London: He favors, even in his religious lyrics, smooth and graceful couplets where they are appropriate. This volume contains various occasional poems and elegies expressing Vaughan’s disgust with the defeat of the Royalists by Oliver Cromwell’s armies and the new order of Puritan piety. The leading poem, “To the River Isca,” ends with a plea for freedom and safety, the river’s banks “redeem’d from all disorders!” The real current pulling this river—under-scoring the quality of Olor Iscanus which prompted its author to delay publication—is a growing resolve to sustain one’s friends and one’s sanity by choosing rural simplicity. The idea of this country fortitude is expressed in many ways. For example, the Cavalier invitation poem, “To my worthy friend, Master T. Lewes,” opens with an evocation of nature “Opprest with snow,” its rivers “All bound up in an Icie Coat.” The speaker in the poem asks his friend to pass the harsh time away and, like nature itself, preserve the old pattern for reorder:

Let us meet then! and while this world
In wild Excentrick snow is hurld,
Keep wee, like nature, the same
Key, And walk in our forefathers way.

In the elegy for Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the late Charles I, Vaughan offers this metaphor: “Thou seem’st a Rose-bud born in Snow,/ A flowre of purpose sprung to bow/ To headless tempests, and the rage/ Of an Incensed, stormie Age.” Then, too, in Olor Iscanus, Vaughan includes his own translations from Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) and the Horatian odes of the seventeenth century Polish writer Sarbiewski. In these, the “country shades”are the seat of refuge in an uncertain world, the residence of virtue, and the best route to blessedness. Moreover, affixed to the volume are three prose adaptations and translations by Vaughan: Of the Benefit Wee may get by our Enemies, after Plutarch; Of the Diseases of the Mind and the Body, after Maximum Tirius; and The Praise and Happiness of the Countrie-Life, after Antonio de Guevera. In this last, Vaughan renders one passage: “Pietie and Religion may be better Cherish’d and preserved in the Country than anywhere else.”

The themes of humility, patience, and Christian stoicism abound in Olor Iscanus in many ways, frequently enveloped in singular works praising life in the country. The literary landscape of pastoral melds with Vaughan’s Welsh countryside. For Vaughan, the enforced move back to the country ultimately became a boon; his retirement from a “world gone mad” (his words) was no capitulation, but a pattern for endurance. It would especially preserve and sustain the Anglican faith that two civil wars had challenged. In Vaughan’s greatest work, Silex Scintillans, the choices that Vaughan made for himselfare expressed, defended, and celebrated in varied, often brilliant ways.


Silex Scintillans

New readers of Silex Scintillan sowe it to themselves and to Vaughan to consider it a whole book containing engaging individual lyrics; in this way its thematic, emotional, and Imagistic patterns and cross references will become apparent. The first part contains seventy-seven lyrics; it was entered in the Stationers’ Register on March 28, 1650, and includes the anonymous engraving dramatizing the title. Fifty-seven lyrics were added for the 1655 edition, including a preface. The first part appears to be the more intense, many of the poems finding Vaughan reconstructing the moment of spiritual illumination. The second part finds Vaughan extending the implications of the first. Above all,though, the whole of Silex Scintillans promotes the active life of the spirit, the contemplative life of natural, rural solitude.

Some of the primary characteristics of Vaughan’s poetry are prominently displayed in Silex Scintillans. First, there is the influence of the Welsh language and Welsh verse. Welsh is highly assonant; consider these lines from the opening poem, “Regeneration”: “Yet it was frost within/ And surly winds/ Blasted my infant buds, and sinne/ Likeclouds ecclips’d my mind.” The dyfalu, or layering of comparison upon comparison, is a technique of Welsh verse that Vaughan brings to his English verse. A second characteristic is Vaughan’s use of Scripture. For example, the idea of spiritual espousal that informs the Song of Solomon is brought forward to the poet’s own time and place. “Hark! how his winds have chang’d their note,/ And with warm whispers call thee out” (“The Revival”) recalls the Song of Solomon 2:11-12. In “The Dawning,” Vaughan imagines the last day of humankind and incorporates the language of the biblical Last Judgment into the cycle of a natural day. Will man’s judge come at night, asks the poet, or “shal these early, fragrant hours/ Unlock thy bowres? . . ./ That with thy glory doth best chime,/ All now are stirring, ev’ry field/ Ful hymns doth yield.”

Vaughan adapts and extends scriptural symbols and situations to his own particular spiritual crisis and resolution less doctrinally than poetically. In this practice, Vaughan follows Herbert, surely another important influence, especially in Silex Scintillans. Nearly sixty poems use a word or phrase important to The Temple; some borrowings are direct responses, as in the concluding lines of “The Proffer,” recalling Herbert’s “The Size.” Sometimes the response is direct; Vaughan’s “The Match” responds to Herbert’s “The Proffer.” Herbert provided Vaughan with an example of what the best poetry does, both instructing the reader and communicating one’s own particular vision. This is Vaughan’s greatest debt to Herbert, and it prompts his praise for the author of The Temple in the preface to Silex Scintillans. Further, Vaughan emulates Herbert’s book of unified lyrics, but the overall structure of The Temple—governed by church architecture and by the church calendar—is transformed in Vaughan to the Temple of Nature, with its own rhythms and purposes.

The Temple of Nature, God’s “second” book, is alive with divinity. The Welsh have traditionally imagined themselves to be in communication with the elements, with flora and fauna; in Vaughan, the tradition is enhanced by Hermetic philosophy, which maintained that the sensible world was made by God to see God in it. The poet no doubt knew the work of his brother Thomas, one of the leading Hermetic voices of the time. Henry Vaughan adapts concepts from Hermeticism (as in the lyric based on Romans 8:19), and also borrows from its vocabulary: Beam, balsam, commerce, essence, exhalations, keys, ties, sympathies occur throughout Silex Scintillans, lending force to a poetic vision already imbued with natural energy. “Observe God in his works,” Vaughan writes in “Rules and Lessons,” noting that one cannot miss “his Praise; Eachtree, herb, flowre/Are shadows of his wisedome, and his Pow’r.”

Vaughan is no pre-Romantic nature lover, however, as some early commentators have suggested. Rather, Silex Scintillans often relies on metaphors of active husbandry and rural contemplation drawn from the twin streams of pagan and biblical pastoral. Many of the lyrics mourn the loss of simplicity and primitive holiness; others confirm the validity of retirement; still others extend the notion of husbandry to cultivating a paradise within as a means of recovering the lost past. Drawing on the Cavalier poets’ technique of suggesting pastoral values and perspective by including certain details or references to pastoral poems, such as sheep, cots, or cells, Vaughan intensifies and varies these themes. Moreover, he crosses from secular traditions of rural poetry to sacred ones. “The Shepheards”—a nativity poem—is one fine example of Vaughan’s ability to conflate biblical pastoralism asserting the birth of Christ with “literary” conventions regarding shepherds.

Several poems illuminating these important themes in Silex Scintillans, are “Religion,” “The Brittish Church,” “Isaac’s Marriage,” and “The Retreate” (loss of simplicity associated with the primitive church); “Corruption,” “Vanity of Spirit,” “Misery,” “Content,” and “Jesus Weeping” (the validity of retirement); “The Resolve,” “Love, and Discipline,” “The Seed Growing Secretly,” “Righteousness,” and “Retirement”(cultivating one’s own paradise within). These are, of course, not the only lyrics articulating these themes, nor are these themes “keys” to all the poems of Silex Scintillans, but Vaughan’s treatment of them suggests a reaffirmation of the self-sufficiency celebrated in his secular work and devotional prose. In his finest volume of poems, however, this strategy for prevailing against unfortunate turns of religion and politics rests on a heart-felt knowledge that even the best human efforts must be tempered by divine love.

Thalia Rediviva

Vaughan’s last collection of poems, Thalia Rediviva, was subtitled The Pass-times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse, as if to reiterate his regional link with the Welsh countryside. The John Williams who wrote the dedicatory epistle for the collection was probably Prebendary of Saint David’s, who within two years became archdeacon of Cardigan. He was probably responsible for soliciting the commendatory poems printed at the front of the volume. That Vaughan gave his endorsement to this Restoration issue of new lyrics is borne out by the fact that he takes pains to mention it to his cousin John Aubrey, author of Brief Lives (1898) in an autobiographical letter written June 15, 1673. Moreover, when it finally appeared, the poet probably was already planning to republish Olor Iscanus. Thus, though his great volume of verse was public reading for more than two decades, Vaughan had not repudiated his other work.

Nor would he have much to apologize for, since many of the finest lyrics in this miscellany are religious, extending pastoral and retirement motifs from Silex Scintillans: “Retirement,” “The Nativity,” “The True Christmas,” “The Bee,” and “To the pious memorie of C. W. . . .” Moreover, Thalia Rediviva contains numerous topical poems and translations, many presumably written after Silex Scintillans. The most elaborate of these pieces is a formal pastoral eclogue, an elegy presumably written to honor the poet’s twin, Thomas. It is Vaughan’s most overt treatment of literary pastoral; it closes on a note that ties its matter to the diurnal rhythms of the world, but one can recognize in it the spirit of Silex Scintillans: “While feral birds send forth unpleasant notes,/ And night (the Nurse of thoughts,) sad thoughts promotes./ But Joy will yet come with the morning-light,/ Though sadly now we bid good night!” Though not moving in the dramatic fashion of Silex Scintillans through a reconstruction of the moment and impact of divine illumination, the poems of Thalia Rediviva nevertheless offer further confirmation of Vaughan’s self-appointed place in the literature of his age.

Major Works
Nonfiction: The Mount of Olives: Or, Solitary Devotions, 1652.
Translations:Hermetical Physick, 1655 (of Heinrich Nolle);The Chymists Key to Open and to Shut, 1657 (of Nolle).
Miscellaneous:The Works of Henry Vaughan, 1914, 1957 (L. C. Martin, editor).

Davies, Stevie. Henry Vaughan. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1995.
Dickson, Donald R., and Holly Faith Nelson, eds. Of Paradise and Light: Essays on Henry Vaughan and John Milton in Honor of Alan Rudrum. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.
Manning, John. The Swan of Usk: The Poetry of Henry Vaughan. Lampeter:  Trivium, University of Wales, Lampeter, 2008.
Nelson, Holly Faith. “Historical Consciousness and the Politics of Translation in the Psalms of Henry Vaughan.” In John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2010.
Nelson, Holly Faith. “Historical Consciousness and the Politics of Translation in thePsalms of Henry Vaughan.” In John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2010.
Shawcross, John T. “Kidnapping the Poets: The Romantics and Henry Vaughan.” In Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism, edited by Lisa Low and Anthony John Harding. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Sullivan, Ceri. The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Young, R. V.Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Studies in Donne,Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000.
Young, R. V.Doctrine and Devotion in Seventeenth-Century Poetry: Studies in Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Categories: History of English Literature

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