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Vaughan, Henry

Category: Poet


Henry Vaughan (17 April 1621 – 23 April 1695) was a Welsh author, physician and metaphysical poet. 

I will provide a short introduction which gives some basic facts, but then I will use an extract from an article by an unknown author called "Henry Vaughan - known as The Silurist" which appeared in a monthly magazine round about 1893/94.

First the basics.

Vaughan had a twin brother, the hermetic philosopher and alchemist Thomas Vaughan with whom he spent most of his childhood and early life.  He felt a constant draw towards the Welsh mountains of his home, Llansantffraed, 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.  Some of his most memorable poems were written there, for example, Olor Iscanus ("the Swan of Usk").


Vaughan married Catherine Wise in 1646, and they had a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Lucy, Frances, and Catherine. After his first wife's death, he married her sister, Elizabeth. 

The period shortly preceding the publication of Henry Vaughan's Silex Scintillans marked an important period of his life. Certain indications in the first volume and explicit statements made in the preface to the second volume of Silex Scintillans suggest that Vaughan suffered a prolonged sickness that inflicted much pain.  There is even a suggestion that he came close to death -  "by dying, I gained new life".  His poetry as a consequence changed completely, he even tried to destroy his earlier works.  Vaughan became as a consequence a deeply spiritual man, in which he experienced "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling".

Brecon Beacons

As is the case with many great writers and poets, Henry Vaughan was acclaimed less during his lifetime than after his death on April 23, 1695, aged 73. He is buried in the churchyard of St Bride's, Llansantffraed, Powys. His poems influenced the work of poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon. The American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick even named Vaughan as a key influence.  Vaughan's "The Evening-Watch" was used for the 1924 "The Evening-Watch: Dialogue between Body and Soul" by Gustav Holst.

Henry Vaughan, called the "Silurist," a designation he adopted as native of South Wales, or County of the Silures [the Celtic tribe of pre-Roman south Wales which strongly resisted the Romans], is a Poet of whom until comparatively recent years too little has been known.

Newton Farmhouse

He was descended from an ancient Brecknockshire family, probably of Royal origin, and was born in 1621, at Newton, on the banks of the Usk, for which he has shown his affection in much of his verse, and with which his name will always be associated. He and his twin brother Thomas owed their early education to the Rev. Matthew Herbert Rector of Llangatock, under whom they made considerable advance in classical studies. In 1638 the brothers both passed into Jesus College, Oxford, but the times were troublesome, and the Oxford of 1638 breathed the spirit of political conflict far more than of studious progress. The Court, removed here from London, was soon to become the pervading influence in the University.

Politics, rather than learning, became the order of the day, and Henry Vaughan appears to have left Oxford without graduating.

Sprung from an old Royalist family, it is no wonder that the young Vaughans (like most other Oxonians) should espouse the cause of the unfortunate Charles. Thomas is known to have borne arms for the king, while Henry, though it is uncertain whether he ever actually engaged in action, undoubtedly suffered imprisonment for the cause. In 1647, we find the brothers living together at Newton; Thomas now a clergyman and Rector of his native parish; Henry, who had obtained after leaving Oxford the M.D. degree of London, practicing as a Doctor of Medicine.

There was however little assured peace to be looked for in those revolutionary days, and Thomas Vaughan had not long been in possession of his country living before he was expelled by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners on trumped-up charges of bad conduct, and from the all-potent fact of his having borne arms for the king.

He retired to Oxford, where he devoted himself to the study of Alchemy. He also published verses in both Latin and English, and on his death, in 1665, was mourned by his brother in the Elegy called "Daphnis," a Pastoral something in the style of Spenser.

Brecon Beacons

Henry Vaughan was intimate with most of the young literary men of his day, whom he met at social gatherings at the "Glove" Tavern, on occasional visits to London. Fletcher's plays, published in 1647, were prefixed by laudatory verses, of which Vaughan was the author, and he speaks also with special admiration of Ben Johnson and the young poet Randolph.

Vaughan first came noticeably before the public as an author by the publication of some love verses and a translation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal; and soon after prepared for press his second volume of verses titled "Olor Iscanus" or "The Swan of the Usk." This however was never published with the author's consent. It contains poems expressive of noble sentiments touched with Royalist enthusiasm, and indicating much depth of poetic feeling. There is in it nothing of which he need have been ashamed in later years, though it appears from the preface, written by Thomas Vaughan who published the volume 1651, that the author had himself intended to burn the M.S. on account of its secular character.

Henry Vaughan experienced through a severe illness a great moral and intellectual change, and determined, as he says in the preface to his later poems, henceforth to devote his muse to religious themes entirely. It was during his illness that Vaughan first became acquainted with the writings of George Herbert, which influenced him in no small degree. He determined to take Herbert as his guide and model, and speaks of him in loving terms as "the blessed man whose holy life and verse gained many pious converts of whom I am the least" (preface to Silex Scintillians.)

In imitation of Herbert's work "The Temple," Vaughan published some sacred poems entitled "Silex Scintillans" (Sparks from the Flint Stone), but this volume and another called "Flores Solitudines" attracted little attention. He ceased from further publication, and little is known of the remaining years of his life. They were probably spent on the banks of his loved Usk, away from uncongenial influences which characterized the Court and times of Charles II, and in the quiet retirement befitting the poet's gentle, musing nature. He was twice married, and died in 1695, at the age of seventy-three. By his own desire the following epitaph was placed on his tomb in the churchyard of Llansaintfraed:--

"Serves inutilis,
Peccator maximus,
Hic jaceo
Gloria! + miserere!"


Vaughan belongs to the metaphysical, or as it has perhaps been more fittingly called, the Fantastic, School of Poets, and is one of the greatest of their number. Until the publication of a selection of his poems with an appreciative memoir by the Rev. H.F. Lyte in 1847, he was, however practically unknown.

The licentious age in which he lived little appreciated the earnest piety of his verse, and during the pre-eminence of the correctly smooth style which after Milton reigned supreme till, from the ashes of the French Revolution, the breath of new Renaissance was fanned on English Literature, no one cared to turn to the more rugged style of some of the better of the Fantastic Poets. The chief collections of the British Poets include no mention of Vaughan, and in our own day it has been possible for a fellow Welshman to address him, though in grateful admiration, as the "unknown Poet." *

Yet Vaughan is wonderfully modern in feeling. Containing, as his verse does, much of the fantastic setting characteristic of the age in which he wrote, there is still far less straining after effect, and far more naturalness in him than in most of his contemporaries. He is conspicuous for what Dr. Johnson calls his "clear intensity," and with much of Herbert's ingenious imagery and Crashaw's rapt devotion, possesses an individual depth of poetic feeling all his own. He was a true lover of nature, and regards her often in that philosophic mood with which Wordsworth has made us familiar.

Take for example the  poem called "The Starre." [see observation].   In the last verse it might almost be Wordsworth speaking, while the two preceding it show the quaint fantastic setting so often to be met with in the poems of Vaughan's day.

The beautiful poem called, "The Retreate," and another entitled "Corruption," remind us of Wordsworth's immortal ode. The former should be read in its entirety [see observations].

There is much that one feels tempted to quote showing Vaughan's tender love of, and joy in nature,  "A Shower" for example has these lines

"Waters above! Eternal Springs!
The dew that silver's the dove's wings!
O welcom, welcom to the sad:
Give dry dust drink, drink that makes glad!
Many fair ev'nings, many flow'rs
Sweetened with rich and gentle showers
Have I enjoyed, and down have run
Many a fine and shining sun;
But never till this happy hour,
Was blest with such an evening shower!"

The alliteration in the fourth line is very effective; we seem almost to hear the gentle patter of the rain.


In the "inwardness" which we have noticed in Vaughan's musings on nature, and which we are apt to regard as peculiarly modern, we are reminded of another nineteenth century poet-Tennyson, who is probably more akin to Vaughan in thought and manner than any other of our later poets. An interesting comparison has been made between Tennyson's "Invitation to F.D. Maurice" and Vaughan's "Invitation to a Brecknockshire Breakfast, " where one cannot be struck with the similarity of thought and expression. But it is in the calm self-restraint and underlying pathos of such poems as "Absence" and "Departed Friends,"-those beautiful lines, best known perhaps of all Vaughan wrote, beginning
"They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit lingering here!"

that we are most strongly reminded of the better-known poet of our day. They breathe the spirit of a hope rising from the ashes of a deep regret, and of the "Faith which comes of self-controll," which together form the keynote of "In Memoriam," and in varying degree of other of Tennyson's poems.

The self-restraint in Vaughan's poetry is very noticeable, when we remember he belonged to an age in which poetry was characterized by a wealth of extravagant conceits and exuberant wordiness. It is true that Vaughan's poetry is often fantastic in style, and ingenious in manner but he is also conspicuous for having known how to unite condensed thought with poetic expression. Take for instance the "Prayer is the world in tune," or the following from "Sundayes":
"A day to seek
Eternity in time; the steps by which
We climb above all ages;"
which are almost epigrammatic.

There is often in Vaughan a rugged earnestness as well as an occasional wealth of metaphor. He tried many styles of versification, and sometimes his lines lack harmony from being too much broken up, as in the longest and one of the otherwise finest of his poems "Rules and Lessons."

But many of his verses are full of grace and beauty, and few writers have perhaps in so small a legacy of poems shown more true poetic feeling. In many of them we get the purely devotional spirit as in Crashaw or Herbert, though with more self-restraint than the one, and with more of metaphysical intensity than the other. Many of these poems are very beautiful and occasionally reach a grandeur unrivalled by either Crashaw or Herbert; as for instance the fine lines in "The World".

In conclusion I will quote only from a quaint little poem called "Stars":

"Stars are of mighty use. The night
Is dark and long;
The rode foul; and where one goes right,
Six may go wrong.

"One twinkling ray
Shot o'er some cloud
May clear much way
And guide a crowd."

Perhaps we could pay no better tribute to the memory of the retiring and humble-minded author of "Silex Scintillians" than by comparing his poems to a "twinkling ray" bright amid much that was dark in contemporary literature, and capable of shining with equal luster still.


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