The World

The  poet Henry Vaughan was born in Trenewydd (Newton), near Brecon, in Wales, in 1622 and lived most of his life not far from there in the small village of Llansantffraed, where he also practised as a physician. He died in 1695. His twin brother Thomas Vaughan was a noted philosopher (and alchemist), so theirs was clearly an interesting family! Henry Vaughan followed in the footsteps of another famous Welsh metaphysical poet, George Herbert, although literary experts seem to argue about their relative merits, as literary experts are wont to do…

I’ve recently developed a bit of a thing for English (and Welsh) metaphysical poets and have included a few examples on here, partly because they are totally new to me and might therefore be new to people reading this blog, and partly because they often deal with grand themes about the Universe which gives me an excuse to include them on what I sometimes pretend is a science blog.

Like many of his ilk (including Thomas Traherne, who I’ve blogged about before) Henry Vaughan wasn’t particularly celebrated in his lifetime but he was increasingly appreciated after his death;  William Wordsworth acknowledged him as a major influence, for example. Recurring themes in Vaughan’s poems – like those of Wordsworth – are the loss of childhood innocence and a love for Nature. I’ve picked one of his most famous works as an example. It doesn’t have as strong an astronomical connection as some others, but the opening lines are so beautiful I hope you won’t mind!

The World

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.
The doting Lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights;
With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure;
Yet his dear treasure
All scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but One did see
That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust;
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
And scorned pretence;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despisèd Truth sat counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring;
But most would use no wing.
‘Oh, fools,’ said I, ‘thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leaps up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.’
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
But for his Bride.

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5 Responses to “The World”

  1. Simon Kemp Says:

    Great to find another astronomer who knows about George Herbert and the Vaughans and darkest Breconshire (I wonder if Michael is a descendant).

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I hadn’t known that George Herbert was Welsh. And (Simon) I don’t know about Michael Vaughan’s family, but he was originally from Lancashire – to me, then, the One that Got Away. Which sounds like a line from Henry Vaughan – fine poem. The punchline, which would have been universally recognised at the time of writing, refers to the allegory at the end of the Bible in which Jesus Christ marries the New Jerusalem containing his dead-and-resurrected faithful. (This parallels the covenant that his Father made with ancient Israel thousands of years before, but with happier outcome.)

    Anton

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Coincidentally, I read yesterday that Henry Vaughan’s brother Thomas may have killed himself by inhaling mercury vapour during a chemical experiment.

    Henry Vaughan’s most famous poem, of course, is Peace, a Christian vision of Heaven:

    My soul, there is a country
    Far beyond the stars,
    Where stands a winged sentry
    All skilful in the wars :
    There, above noise and danger,
    Sweet peace sits crown’d with smiles ;
    And one born in a manger
    Commands the beauteous files.
    He is thy gracious friend,
    And, O my soul, awake!
    Did in pure love descend
    To die here for thy sake.
    If thou canst get but thither,
    There grows the flower of peace,
    The rose that cannot whither,
    They fortress and thy ease.
    Leave then thy foolish ranges ;
    For none can thee secure,
    But one who never changes,
    Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

    (That transcription is from a collection of English-language religious poetry of the seventeenth century.)

  4. telescoper Says:

    Bryn,

    Another poem by Vaughan I think is marvellous is They are all Gone into the World of Light :

    They are all gone into the world of light!
    And I alone sit ling’ring here;
    Their very memory is fair and bright,
    And my sad thoughts doth clear.

    It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
    Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
    Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
    After the sun’s remove.

    I see them walking in an air of glory,
    Whose light doth trample on my days:
    My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
    Mere glimmering and decays.

    O holy Hope! and high Humility,
    High as the heavens above!
    These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
    To kindle my cold love.

    Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
    Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
    What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
    Could man outlook that mark!

    He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
    At first sight, if the bird be flown;
    But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
    That is to him unknown.

    And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
    Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
    So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
    And into glory peep.

    If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
    Her captive flames must needs burn there;
    But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
    She’ll shine through all the sphere.

    O Father of eternal life, and all
    Created glories under thee!
    Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
    Into true liberty.

    Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
    My perspective still as they pass,
    Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
    Where I shall need no glass.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    He’s very eschatological (or at least this selection is). I disagree only with “Dear, beauteous death”. That is a view which comes from the ancient Greek worldview which sees death as seclome release of the perfect spirit from the imperfect body, whereas the Hebraic worldview (with which classical Greece is in tension in Western culture) sees death as an enemy, since it terminates relationships.
    Anton

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