The British poet Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), one of the finest poets of the metaphysical school, wrote verse marked by mystical intensity, sensitivity to nature, tranquility of tone, and power of wording.
Henry Vaughan was born in Brecknockshire, Wales. He and his twin brother Thomas received their early education in Wales and in 1638 matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford. Unlike his brother, who remained to receive a degree and become a noted philosopher, Henry left Oxford without a degree to pursue a law career in London. At the outbreak of the civil war in 1642, Vaughan returned to Wales, occupied himself in the law, and then entered military service in the royalist cause. Later in life he practiced medicine, and he probably studied it during these years.
Vaughan apparently began writing poetry in the same decade. In 1646 he published his Poems, half of which consisted of a translation of Juvenal's tenth satire. The next year he wrote the preface to a second volume, Olor Iscanus (The Swan of Usk), which did not appear until 1651; like the earlier volume, it comprises secular poems and translations and shows little inspiration. In 1648 he seems to have undergone a religious conversion, perhaps connected with the death of a brother that year.
The major poetry of Vaughan, all religious in nature, was published in 1650 and 1655 in the two parts of Silex scintillans (Sparkling Flint). Some of the best poems in it are "The Morning Watch, " "The Retreat, " "Childhood, " "The Dawning, " and "Peace." He published more religious verse and prose in his later years, and a number of translations, but nothing after the great volumes of the 1650s retains much interest. He died in Wales on April 23, 1695.
Vaughan is a poet in whom it is easy to trace the influence of others, particularly the wit of John Donne and the quiet, understated, dramatic technique of George Herbert, to whom he credited his religious conversion. At its weakest Vaughan's verse is too plainly derivative, and not infrequently a poem remains valuable today for no more than a stanza or a line. At his best, however—a best that created some of the most beautiful lyrics in English poetry— his voice is profoundly personal, and his ability to maintain the emotional tension of a poem can be impressive. Much of his power derives from a mystical Christian Neoplatonism that he does not share with his poetic masters and that reveals itself in images of dazzling light, in cosmic visions, and in a fusion of Platonic concepts, such as the descent of man from the "sea of light" of his childhood to an alienated adulthood, expressed in biblical motifs, images, and language. His genius can best be suggested by the opening of "The World, " in which a mystical vision is successfully conveyed in the boldest tone of understatement: "I saw eternity the other night/ Like a great ring of pure and endless light, / All calm as it was bright…."
Further Reading on Henry Vaughan
The standard biography of Vaughan is Francis E. Hutchinson, Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation (1947). Good critical accounts are in Helen C. White, The Metaphysical Poets: A Study in Religious Experience (1936); Douglas Bush, English Literature of the Earlier Seventeenth Century (1945; 2d ed. 1962), the best source for information on literary backgrounds as well; and Joan Bennett, Five Metaphysical Poets (1964).
Additional Biography Sources
Davies, Stevie, Henry Vaughan, Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Seren; Chester Springs, PA: U.S. distributor, Dufour Editions, 1995.