About Henry Vaughan
Henry Vaughan was born in 1621 in the Welsh country parish of Llansantffread between the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains, where he lived for nearly the whole of his life. His younger twin brother, Thomas, became a reputed alchemist. Both boys went to Oxford, but Henry was summoned home to Wales on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. He probably saw military service on the king's side, but his references to this, published during the Commonwealth, are understandably vague. He married Catherine Wise, and on her death some years later he married her sister, Elizabeth. There were four children by each marriage.
Vaughan's first two verse publications are mostly secular, including love poems and translations from the Latin. All the poems recorded here are taken from his third volume, a collection of magnificent religious poetry entitled Silex Scintillans. A profound spiritual crisis, perhaps connected with the death of his younger brother William and the defeat of King Charles, seems to have precipitated the dramatic change in his writing.
The Retreat describes a longing to return to the innocence of pre-existence. The soul is in exile and aches to go back to its heavenly home, to regain that unspoilt vision of his 'angell-infancy'. This notion anticipates Wordsworth's vision of the innocence of childhood and the natural world; both poets suffer a sense of loss. But Wordsworth's consolation is fleeting while Vaughan is positive: nothing is equal to that first light to which he will return 'when this dust falls to the urn'.
The direct simplicity and certainty of the first three lines of 'The World' are justly celebrated, and the poem as a whole reflects the influence of George Herbert, especially in the calm resolution of the ending. The poem 'Man', by contrast, is more troubled, but maintains a twinkling humour and wisdom. 'Cock-crowing' is a charming meditation on the bird who dreams of paradise and light, watching for the first rays of the sun.
Vaughan hungers for light in all these great poems of the life of the spirit, as our final poem demonstrates. Death is a release not to be feared: 'They have all gone into the world of light.'
In 1673 Vaughan supplied John Aubrey with information about himself and his twin brother for their biographies. Vaughan's letter includes the statement that his profession was physic, 'which I have practised now for many years with good success (I thank God)'. It is tempting to think that this Welsh doctor found some of his matter-of-fact simplicity and poise from his work with the sick. He was still practising medicine two years before his death in 1695.