Henry Vaughan – This Writer’s Latest Muse…
Henry Vaughan – twin brother to Thomas, the Philosopher and Alchemist – was born in Newton upon Usk, Breconshire, Wales, in 1621. He went to Oxford with his brother (we think) but left to study Law in London. Unfortunately, this career choice was interrupted by the outbreak of Civil War in 1641.
Briefly on the side of the King, Vaughan saw active service in South Wales in 1645, but as little is known about his early life except what was divulged to his friend and confident, Aubrey Wood in the preface to the 1675 Silex Scintillans (the Fiery Flint), we do not know where – or if – he saw action. By 1646, however, we do know he was married to his first wife Catherine Wise, with whom he had one son and three daughters, and he had given up the law and had begun to study Medicine, though he never formally gained an MD.
Following Catherine’s death in 1655, Vaughan married her sister Elizabeth, clearly showing that he was not worried by the Law of Consanguinity which had so exercised Henry VIII’s mind 100 years earlier. During this marriage, Vaughan had one more son, and another three daughters.
He died on April 23rd 1695 and is buried in St Briget’s church, Llansantffraed and after that little was known or remembered of him.
Bizarrely it is not for his medical career that Vaughan is known; instead it is his substantial poetical output – especially his religious poetry that has led to the unrivaled position as England’s major metaphysical poet. Those who have studied
his Silex Scintillans – published in 1650 cite this work as truly inspired and full of religious fervour. Heavily altered for subsequent publications, many casual readers are unaware of the initial rawness of his writing at this point and the clear hurt engendered as a result of Puritan actions during the republican era ( his brother lost his church living) and the death of his younger brother so obviously had on his writing.
By the 19th century he had been superseded by Wordsworth. Indeed, Victorian commentators are scathing of his work and attitudes, clearly showing the first major Welsh poet had not traversed time well. Now a-days we see him for what he is and are able to place his work into a wider context of understanding.
Of course, those of you who are following this set of postings are probably wondering how a metaphysical poet, fits into the Aldwych Strand Saga.
It’s simple; in the library at school we have a collection of 17th century poetry and I can’t resist the chance to read a bit of Milton or Marvel when the chance arises. And arise it did, with a moved year seven lesson.
Delighted by the chance to dip into Milton I opened the anthology with glee! Yet, the page opened not at anything by Milton or Marvel, but at Vaughn’s: The World. A poem I have never read before.
It’s long, and I’ll be honest, I need to go back and read it again because I got no further than half way through the first stanza.
For suddenly, the deadlock I had faced with Adventure 5 vanished – as if it had never been! I knew exactly what to do next.
Those of you who have read either last night’s instalment or the one from the night before will know who saw “Eternity the other night”. Who sees time, in: “hours, days, years.” And who has been “hurled” from the world.
For those who cannot be tempted to dip their toe into my little bit of fiction. Ponder the lines below and see what inspiration Wales’ first and foremost metaphysical poet can lavish on you:
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.