Archive for Henry Vaughan

The World

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 28, 2010 by telescoper

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.