He now seems to be firmly established as one of the finest of the pure lyric voices of the seventeenth century.” So writes French Fogle in his 1965 edition of The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan. But the literary world had been slow enough in its acclaim of the poet-doctor of South Wales, who like St. Luke was a Christian first and a physician second; for the critical attention given Vaughan over the past three decades has far exceeded that of the preceding three centuries. The first book-length biography of him did not appear until 1947. And though recent biographical findings have been extensive, the certain facts of the personal history of Henry Vaughan (1622–95) can still be told in fewer than three hundred words. His poetry must speak for itself, and this is as it should be.

Furthermore, the exhaustive studies that have been made on the major influences on his life and poetry—such as the Wales countryside, George Herbert, the Bible, and Platonism—leave the story incomplete, for they do not take into account the fact of Christian rebirth. Vaughan’s full allegiance to the one Source of man’s truth is reflected in these last lines from his poem “Peace”:

For none can thee secure

But One who never changes,

Thy God, thy life, thy Cure.

It appears constantly throughout his writing, as in “The Sap”:

To show by what strange love He had to our good

He gave his sacred blood.…

Such secret life, and virtue in it lies

It will exalt and rise

And actuate such spirits as are shed.…

Henry Vaughan’s song “The Night,” suggested by St. John’s words about Nicodemus, has been called one of the most exquisitely tender and sensitive of all religious poems. Speaking of the light seen by Nicodemus that “made him know his God by sight,” the poet continues:

Most blest believer he!

Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes

Thy long expected healing wings could see

When thou didst rise,

And what can never more be done,

Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

O who will tell me, where

He found thee at that dead and silent hour!

What hallowed solitary ground did bear

So rare a flower,

Within whose sacred leaves did lie

The fullness of the Deity.

No mercy-seat of gold,

No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone,

But his own living works did my Lord

hold And lodge alone

Where trees and herbs did watch and peep;

And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

Dear night! this world’s defeat;

The stop to busy fools; cares check and curb;

The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat

Which none disturb;

Christ’s progress and his prayer time;

The hours to which high heaven doth chime.

Thus the poem becomes an apostrophe to the night where souls may hear God’s “still, soft call;/His knocking time.…” It ends with this often quoted stanza:

There is in God (some say)

A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here

Say it is late and dusky because they

See not all clear;

O for that night! where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.

In a meditation in The Mount of Olives, Vaughan said, “It is the observation of some spirits that night is the motherof thoughts. And I shall add that these thoughts are stars, the scintillations and the lightnings of the soul struggling with darkness.” In one of his prefaces he asked the reader to “remember that there are bright stars under the most palpable clouds, and light is never so beautiful as in the presence of darkness.”

Other of the “metaphysicals” of the seventeenth century—Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Traherne—followed the profession of priest or chaplain. Robert Herrick, too, one of the finest of England’s pastoral poets and also of Vaughan’s century, was an Anglican vicar. But, devout though Vaughan was from his earliest years, he turned to medicine and was still seeing his patients in Wales in the last years of his life; for like many another true mystic, Vaughan combined his occult thoughts with a deep regard for his fellow men.

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Henry and his twin brother Thomas had been taught by Matthew Herbert, clergyman and noted schoolmaster, before they went to Oxford in 1638, where Thomas was graduated. Henry, however, left Oxford without taking a degree and later studied law in London. Except for his four years of study in England and his short period with the Royalists in the Civil War, Henry spent all his life in his native village of Newton-by-Usk. The river is said to flow through all his poems as if sourced in Eden. For Vaughan loved God’s world of nature quite as much as Herrick; and that love, informed and elevated by the Holy Spirit, sings throughout his works.

It is not known when or where Henry received the M.D. degree that is recorded on his tombstone in his native parish churchyard. But on June 15, 1673, he wrote his cousin John Aubrey that his profession was that of medicine and that he had practiced it then for many years “with good success (I thank God) and a repute big enough for a person of greater parts than myself.” In his writing career he had translated two books by Henry Nollius (Heinrich Nolle), described as a famous professor of medicine: Hermetical Physick and The Chymist’s Key. Vaughan followed Nollius in believing that “the first qualification of the physician (as well as the patient) is that he be a sound Christian, and truly religious and holy.” His feelings about what he called “this iron age” and “exiled religion” were intense, and he deplored the effects of what Plutarch (whom Vaughan also translated) had termed “malevolence, with an implacable and endless resentment of injuries” on the bodies of men as well as on their minds and hearts. Another translation of Vaughan’s had been made from the works of a Platonic writer who found the diseases of the mind far more pernicious than those of the body. In two passages that read like the latest “discovery” by some modern psychiatrist, we find these truths:

The disease of the body hath never yet occasioned wars, but that of the mind hath occasioned many.
The sufferer from bodily ills is made desirous of health and therefore fitter for cure, but the mind, once infected and bewitched, will not so much as hear of health.

The profound spiritual awakening of Vaughan that occurred around 1648 was to yield rich fruit in the famous volume of sacred poetry Silex Scintillans. All commentators on the poet declare that this poetry shows he had been illumined by a rare conversion experience, when, saddened by the misery, sickness, and death about him, he resolved to spend the rest of his life in his native village on the banks of the river and give himself tirelessly to the relief of the physical and spiritual ills of his fellows. His thoughts, writes J. B. Leishman in his volume The Metaphysical Poets, were to be devoted wholly to contemplation of the mercies and mysteries of God:

[The poet-physician would go on] listening for those divine intimations which he cannot hear amid the noises of the busy world, but which come to him in solitude, especially among the sights and sounds of nature, where, as in the days of his childhood—that childhood where he seemed nearest to God and immortality—he is able to detect “some shadows of eternity.”

But Vaughan also wished to “travel back” beyond his childhood days to a new appreciation of those first days of creation of God’s glorious and wonderful universe of life and light. Repose and brightness are the Eternity Vaughan describes as he visioned it:

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

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And all her train were hurled.…

At the end of this majestic vision, Vaughan condemns as fools those who do not use the Light, that is, the Way “which from this dead and dark abode/Leads up to God.” But, he adds, “as I did their madness so discuss/One whispered thus”:

This Ring, the Bridegroom did for none provide

But for his bride.

This apocalyptic metaphor, like all in Vaughan, was inspired by the Bible he loved.

A companion to the poem in Silex Scintillans referring to his younger brother William’s death in 1648 (which begins “Silence and stealth of days! ’Tis now/Since thou art gone,/Twelve hundred hours”) is the great Ascension Hymn (“He alone/And none else can/Bring bone to bone/And rebuild man …”):

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 drest,

After the Sun’s remove.

Thus the hymn continues through its ten exquisite stanzas, including the perfect quatrains:

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.…

O Father of eternal life, and all

Created glories under thee!

Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall

Into true liberty.

Either dispense 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 powerful pulse of the supernatural sounds in Vaughan’s nature poetry precisely as it does in Robert Herrick’s. Each constantly looks to the Giver beyond all human or natural gifts. And the conciseness and simplicity of Herrick’s triplet—“We see Him come, and know Him ours,/Who with His sunshine and His showers,/Turns all the patient ground to flowers”—is echoed throughout Vaughan’s praise of nature. Each poet wrote in effect an apology for his secular verses, though Herrick unlike Vaughan printed in one large volume, The Hesperides (1648), both secular and sacred writings. Henry Vaughan issued his own poetry at first in separate publications. In his preface to Part II of the 1655 reissue of Silex Scintillans, he speaks of his deep dissatisfaction with the literature of the day and his own earlier “guilt” in writing “idle words.”

Vaughan’s poem dedication in the two editions of the Silex, his finest book, begins:

My God! thou that didst die for me,

These thy death’s fruits I offer thee;

Death that to me was life and light

But dark and deep pangs to thy sight.

Some drops of thy all-quick’ning blood

Fell on my heart; those made it bud

And put forth thus, though Lord, before

The ground was curs’d, and void of store.…

In the long first poem, “Regeneration,” we find the poet, stanza by stanza, experiencing his “new spring”:

The unthrift sun shot vital gold A thousand pieces,

And heaven its azure did unfold

Checkered with snowy fleeces,

The air was all in spice And every bush

A garland wore: Thus fed my eyes

But all the ear lay hush

(“Come, thou southwind, and blow upon my garden that the spices may flow out” is appended to this first poem as referring to the imagery in the Song of Solomon.) In “Resurrection and Immortality” with its epigraph from Hebrews—“By that new and living way, which he hath prepared for us through the veil, which is his flesh”—we are given a dialogue between the body and the soul. The soul, having the last word, refers to death as “a change of suits”:

For a preserving spirit doth still pass

Untainted through this mass,

Which doth resolve, produce, and ripen all

That to it fall

It is that spirit which “from the womb of things/ Such treasure brings/ As Phenix-like reneweth/Both life, and youth.”

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Evidence of the poet’s genuine rebirth sings throughout the two editions of Silex Scintillans up to the closing L’Envoy: “O the new world’s new, quick’ning Sun!/ Ever the same, and never done!” The author of the famous “The Retreat,” which begins “Happy those early days when I/ Shined in my angel-infancy!” (the poem said to have inspired Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”), accepted Christ’s command, “Except ye become as little children …,” as the necessary requisite for citizens of heaven. So he tells us over and over in his matchless poetry.

The last published book of the poet-doctor of Wales did not appear until the year 1678 and is a second gleaning of early work: Thalia Rediviva. For after the second edition of Silex Scintillans (1655), evidently Vaughan devoted all his energies to the care of the sick in his charge. There had been some obscurity about the publication of his earlier book of poetry, Olor Iscanus, dedicated in 1647, and a smaller volume of poetry the preceding year. Besides translations from Latin poetry, with a small grouping of English and Latin (Vaughan was well-versed in the language) of his own poetic composition, the Olor volume contained four prose translations, including one titled “The Praise and Happiness of the Country Life.” All his prose is in keeping with his poetic gifts. An original treatise is The Mount of Olives or Solitary Devotions (1652). This book of devotions, drawing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, is a remarkable volume to come from a layman, however devout. His full belief (in Christ as “Very God and very Man,” in the Trinity, in the Redemption and Atonement) is explicitly stated. What he says shows that for him as for St. John in Browning’s “Death in a Desert,” such belief had solved “all questions in the earth and out of it.” Nearly half of the Devotions deals with prayers for the right reception of Holy Communion. “The great design and end of thine Incarnation was to save sinners,” Vaughan says in one prayer.

Though the poet had called himself at one time the least of the converts of George Herbert, and has too often been held an imitator of Herbert, whose true disciple he was, his biographer F. E. Hutchinson says that his “devoted churchmanship, so fully evinced in The Mount of Olives, makes it clear that his celebration of the great Christian doctrines and of the Church’s year in Silex Scintillans is no mere imitation of George Herbert but expresses his own mind.” He adds that Vaughan, “with an elevation above Herbert’s, ascends in his greater poems to the remote spaces of eternity.” In both The Mount of Olives and Silex Scintillans Vaughan, dwelling often on thoughts of departed friends and relatives and the eternal order itself, does indeed express his own elevation of soul. That he is receiving far more critical acclaim in our day than in any other period during or since his own far-off lifetime is witness to that unchanging Spirit he wrote of so well, the Spirit that makes all things new. As Emerson once wrote: “One accent of the Holy Ghost/ The heedless world has never lost.”

M. Whitcomb Hess received the A.B. degree from the University of Kansas and the A.M. degree from Ohio University. She is the author of more than one hundred essays on philosophical and literary themes and of many poems.

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