The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Henry Vaughan "The Silurist," 1621-1695

by F. U.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 447-452

Henry Vaughan, called the "Silurist," a designation he adopted as native of South Wales, or County of the Silures, is a Poet of whom, until comparatively recent years, too little has been known.

[Silurist relates to the Celtic Silures, who resisted the Romans in ancient times,]

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.

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 Jonson and the young poet [Thomas] 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 in 1651, that the author had himself intended to burn the M.S. on account of its secular character. Henry Vaughan's later writings offer no such contrast to those of his earlier days, as do the writings for instance of Downe, but, like George Herbert (with whom he was connected by marriage), 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.

[Downe may be a typo; John Donne may be who was meant.]

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!"

[Google translate:
"Useless servants
The greatest sinner
I lie here
Glory! + mercy!"

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." [See Lewis Morris's Lines "To an 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. [Samuel] Johnson calls his "clear intensity," and with much of Herbert's ingenious imagery and [Richard] 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 following lines from a poem called "The Starre."

     "Whatever 'tis, whose beauty here below
     Attracts thee thus, and makes thee stream and flow,
     And wind and curle, and wink and smile,
          Shifting the gate and guile.

     "Though thy close commerce nought at all imbarrs
     My present search, for eagle's eye not starrs;
     And still the lesser by the best
          And highest good is blest;

     "Yet seeing all things that subsist and be
     Have their commissions from Divinitie
     And teach us duty, I will see
          What man may learn from thee."

In this 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; from the latter I quote the opening lines:

     "Sure, it was so. Man in those early days
          Was not all stone and earth:
     He shin'd a little, and by those weak rays,
          Had some glimpse of his birth."

There is much that one feels tempted to quote showing Vaughan's tender love of, and joy in nature, but I will give only the following gem-like poem on "A Shower":

     "Waters above! Eternal Springs!
     The dew that silvers 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 but 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 this line--

     "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 [Richard] Crashaw or [George] 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 instanc, the fine lines in "The World" beginning:

     "I saw eternity the other night,
     Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
     All calm, as it was bright.

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 cotemporary literature, and capable of shining with equal luster still.

F. U.

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023