Sunday, September 25, 2016

Neglected Important Poets No.1: Henry Vaughn

Poems by Henry Vaughn
Henry Vaughn

Henry Vaughan was born in 1624 in Newton-upon-Usk in Breconshire, Wales. In 1638, it is assumed, he entered 
Oxford University with his twin brother Thomas who gained fame as a hermetic philosopher and alchemist. In 1640,Vaughan left Oxford to study law in London for two years. His studies were interrupted by the Civil War in which Vaughan briefly took the King's side. He is thought to have served on the Royalist side in South Wales sometime around 1645. Vaughan returned to Breconshire in 1642 as secretary to Judge Lloyd, and later began to practice medicine. By 1646, he had probably married Catherine Wise with whom he was to have a son and three daughters. After the death of his first wife, Vaughan married her sister Elizabeth possibly in 1655. Vaughan had another son, and three more daughters by his second wife. He  published a few more works and when he died he was buried in Llansantffraed churchyard. 

In 1646, his Poems, with the Tenth Satyre of Juvenal Englished was published, followed by a second volume in 1647. Meanwhile he had been “converted” by reading the religious poet  George Herbert and gave up “idle verse.” His Silex Scintillans (1650; “The Glittering Flint,” enlarged 1655) and the prose Mount of Olives: or, Solitary Devotions (1652) show the depth of his religious convictions and the authenticity of his poetic genius. Two more volumes of secular verse were published, ostensibly without his sanction; but it is his religious verse that has lived. He also translated short moral and religious works and two medical works in prose. At some time in the 1650s he began to practice medicine and continued to do so throughout his life.

Though Vaughan borrowed phrases from Herbert and other writers and wrote poems with the same titles as Herbert’s, he was one of the most original poets of his day. Chiefly he had a gift of spiritual vision or imagination that enabled him to write freshly and convincingly.

He was equally gifted in writing about nature, holding the old view that every flower enjoys the air it breathes and that even sticks and stones share man’s expectation of resurrection. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth may have been influenced by Vaughan.

Vaughan’s poetry was largely disregarded in his own day and for a century after his death. He shared in the revival of interest in 17th-century metaphysical poets in the 20th Century.

An Old Book of Poetry by Henry Vaughan

The World
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world
And all her train were hurl’d;

We come and we go
make our noise on holiday,
come back from the wild land
where the caribou ruts
and the eagle streaks the sky,
return to our civil places
with cameras full of photographs
of what we really did not see.

In the distance, eternal and unapproachable,
the mighty mountains wait for us,
majestic in their silence.

*                    *                     *

Vanity Of Spirit

Quite spent with thoughts, I left my cell and lay
Where a shrill spring tuned to the early day.
I begged here long, and groaned to know
Who gave the clouds so brave a bow,
Who bent the spheres, and circled in
Corruption with this glorious ring;
What is His name, and how I might
Descry some part of His great light.
I summoned nature: pierced through all her store,
Broke up some seals which none had touched before:
Her womb, her bosom, and her head
Where all her secrets lay abed,
I rifled quite; and having passed
Through all her creatures, came at last
To search myself, where I did find
Traces and sounds of a strange kind.
Here of this mighty spring I found some drills,
With echoes beaten from the eternal hills;
Weak beams and fires flashed to my sight,
Like a young east, or moonshine night,
Which showed me in a nook cast by
A piece of much antiquity,
With hieroglyphics quite dismembered,
And broken letters scarce remembered.
I took them up and, much joyed, went about
To unite those pieces, hoping to find out
The mystery; but this ne'er done,
That little light I had was gone:
It grieved me much. At last, said I,
Since in these veils my eclipsed eye
May not approach Thee (for at night
Who can have commerce with the light?),
I'll disapparel, and to buy
But one half glance, mist gladly die.

*                    *                     *

Death. A Dialogue


'TIS a sad Land, that in one day 
Hath dull'd thee thus ; when death shall freeze 
Thy blood to ice, and thou must stay 
Tenant for years, and centuries ; 
How wilt thou brook't ? 


I cannot tell ; 
But if all sense wings not with thee, 
And something still be left the dead, 
I'll wish my curtains off, to free 
Me from so dark and sad a bed : 

A nest of nights, a gloomy sphere, 
Where shadows thicken, and the cloud 
Sits on the sun's brow all the year, 
And nothing moves without a shroud. 


'Tis so : but as thou saw'st that night 
We travail'd in, our first attempts 
Were dull and blind, but custom straight 
Our fears and falls brought to contempt : 

Then, when the ghastly twelve was past, 
We breath'd still for a blushing East, 
And bade the lazy sun make haste, 
And on sure hopes, though long, did feast. 

But when we saw the clouds to crack, 
And in those crannies light appear'd, 
We thought the day then was not slack, 
And pleas'd ourselves with what we fear'd. 

Just so it is in death. But thou 
Shalt in thy mother's bosom sleep, 
Whilst I each minute groan to know 
How near Redemption creeps. 

Then shall wee meet to mix again, and met, 
'Tis last good-night ; our Sun shall never set.

Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the 
land of darkness, and the shadow of death ;
A Land of darkness, as darkness itself, and of the 
shadow of death, without any order, and where the 
light is as darkness. 

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