Mole Valley Poets - Meeting 7th September 2009
Helen Overell: Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan (17th April 1622 - 23rd April 1695) was a Welsh metaphysical poet and medical practitioner. He and his twin brother, Thomas, an alchemist and hermetic philosopher, were the sons of Thomas Vaughan and Denise Morgan who lived in Newton-upon-Usk, Brecknockshire, Wales. Henry spent most of his life in the village of Llansantffraed, near Brecon, and is buried there in the churchyard of St Bridget's.

From 1632, both Henry and Thomas were taught by the rector of Llangattock (Crickhowell), the Rev. Matthew Herbert. In 1638, they attended Jesus College, Oxford, England. However, around 1640, Henry's family persuaded him to pursue a career in law which meant abandoning an Oxford degree.

As the Civil War developed, Henry was recalled home from London, initially to serve as a secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, a chief justice on the Brecknockshire circuit and staunch royalist. Military service interrupted his study of the law and, upon his return, Henry began to practise medicine. By 1646, he had married Catherine Wise and they had a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Lucy, Frances, and Catherine. After his first wife's death, he married her sister, Elizabeth.

Henry Vaughan was inspired by his environment and chose the descriptive name "Silurist". The Silures, were the Celtic tribe of pre-Roman south Wales and strongly resisted the Romans. This name reflects the deep love Henry felt towards the Welsh mountains of his home in what is now part of the Brecon Beacons National Park and the River Usk valley where he spent most of his early life and professional life.

By 1647 Henry Vaughan, with his wife and children, had chosen life in the country. He wrote Olor Iscanus, the (Swan of Usk) at this time. However, this collection was not published until 1651. There seems to have been a great crisis in Vaughan's life between writing and publishing Olor Iscanus. During these years, his grandfather William Vaughan died and Henry was evicted from his living in Llansantffraed. No major battles were fought in Brecknockshire during the Civil War, but the effects of war were deeply felt by his community. The Puritan Parliament ejected many Anglicans and Royalists. Olor Iscanus is based on these times. These poems are critical of all current authority and lack enthusiasm for the royalist cause. He said that he had "long ago condemned these poems to obscurity" and wished they had not been published.

Henry Vaughan suffered a prolonged and painful sickness in the period before the publication of his Silex Scintillans in 1650. This experience seemed to him to be an encounter with death and a wake-up call to his "misspent youth". He believed he had been spared to make amends. He described his previous work as foul and "corrupt literature". Much of his conversion is credited to George Herbert who provided a model for Henry's newly founded spiritual life and literary career and from whom he gained a "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling". George Herbert's The Temple is often seen as the inspiration for Henry Vaughan's Silex Scintillans. The same themes, experience, and beliefs are evident. Around this time, he adopted the saying "moriendo, revixi", meaning "by dying, I gain new life".

Henry Vaughan thinks in terms of a physical and spiritual world and the obscure relation between the two. He was loyal to the themes of the Anglican Church and religious festivals, but found his true voice in the more mystical themes of eternity, communion with the dead, nature and childhood. Much of Vaughan's poetry has a particularly modern sound.

Henry Vaughan died on April 23rd, 1695, aged 74. He received more acclaim after his death than during his life. He is recognised as having influenced the work of poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon.

The Bird by Henry Vaughan

Hither thou com'st ; the busy wind all night
Blew through thy lodging, where thy own warm wing
Thy pillow was. Many a sullen storm
(For which course man seems much the fitter born)
Rained on thy bed
And harmless head.

And now as fresh and cheerful as the light,
Thy little heart in early hymns doth sing
Unto that providence, whose unseen arm
Curbed them, and clothed thee well and warm.
All things that be, praise him ; and had
Their lesson taught them, when first made.

So hills and valleys into singing break,
And though poor stones have neither speech nor tongue,
While active winds and streams both run and speak,
Yet stones are deep in admiratiòn.
Thus Praise and Prayer here beneath the sun
Make lesser mornings, when the great are done.

For each encolsèd spirit is a star
Inlighting his own little sphere,
Whose light, though fetched and borrowed from afar,
Both mornings makes and evenings there.

Peace by Henry Vaughan

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry
All skillful in the wars :
There, above noise and danger,
Sweet Peace sits crown'd with smiles,
And One born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious Friend,
And-O my soul awake !-
Did in pure love descend,
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of Peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave then thy foolish ranges ;
For none can thee secure,
But One, who never changes,
Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

They are all gone into the world of light by Henry Vaughan

They are all gone into the world of light !
And I alone sit ling'ring here ;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is dress'd,
After the sun's remove.

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days :
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

O holy Hope ! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above !
These are your walks, and you have show'd them me,
To kindle my cold love.

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

He that hath found some fledg'd bird's nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown ;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.

And yet, as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul when man doth sleep,
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,
And into glory peep.

If a star were confin'd into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there ;
But when the hand that lock'd her up, gives room,
She'll shine through all the sphere.

O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under Thee !
Resume Thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass :
Or else remove me hence unto that hill
Where I shall need no glass.

The Morning Watch by Henry Vaughan

O JOYS! Infinite sweetness ! with what flowers
And shoots of glory, my soul breaks and buds !
All the long hours
Of night and rest,
Through the still shrouds
Of sleep, and clouds,
This dew fell on my breast ;
O how it bloods,
And spirits all my earth ! hark ! in what rings,
And hymning circulations the quick world
Awakes, and sings !
The rising winds,
And falling springs,
Birds, beasts, all things
Adore Him in their kinds.
Thus all is hurl'd
In sacred hymns and order ; the great chime
And symphony of Nature. Prayer is
The world in tune,
A spirit-voice,
And vocal joys,
Whose echo is heaven's bliss.
O let me climb
When I lie down ! The pious soul by night
Is like a clouded star, whose beams, though said
To shed their light
Under some cloud,
Yet are above,
And shine and move
Beyond that misty shroud.
So in my bed,
That curtain'd grave, though sleep, like ashes, hide
My lamp and life, both shall in Thee abide.

The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

Happy those early days, when I
Shin'd in my angel-infancy!
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy ought
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walk'd above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back (at that short space)
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flow'r
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense,
A sev'ral sin to ev'ry sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.

O how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain,
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th' enlighten'd spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move;
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

The World by Henry Vaughan

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,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
The doting Lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit's sour delights;
With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure;
Yet his dear treasure
All scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but One did see
That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust;
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
And scorned pretence;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despisèd Truth sat counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring;
But most would use no wing.
'Oh, fools,' said I, 'thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leaps up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.'
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
But for his Bride.