The Idea of Mysticism as Portrayed in Henry Vaughan’s Poetry
Henry Vaughan, a mystical Welsh doctor started writing poetry in the style of John Donne and followed his platonic love poetry in his early poems which were secular by nature. But illness detached him from the world and turned his thoughts to spiritual things. He fell deeply under the influence of George Herbert and imitated him in his later poems. Yet his poetry is stamped with distinct individual qualities. There is a marked difference between his poetry and those of his predecessors like Donne and Herbert. This difference lies more in his mysticism than in any other elements. A genuine mystical strain is found in Vaughan’s thoughts. It is the most mystic matter-of-factness that gives his poetry its most impressive quality. The strange other-worldly insights that characterize his poetry are the fruits of his imagination on religious themes. His verse rang out with most power and beauty when his own quietest and mystical vision was at its most intensity.
Vaughan’s mysticism is more fluid and less argumentative. He was not a priest like Herbert or Crashaw; he was at heart a mystic more at home in sacred than in secular verse. He prays not in a Church like Herbert, but in the open air. Inspired with the picturesque beauty of the land he lived in; he loved Nature like the poets of the Romantic period. No poet of the pre-romantic period is known to have such love of Nature that he had. Because of the mystic attitude to Nature, his feelings mingle with his Christian meditations and it has imparted to the best of his work something which is romantic and modern. Vaughan has the soul of a hermit. Wordsworth, the high-priest of Nature seems to have been influenced by him in his “Ode on the Immortality of the Soul.” His meditations on life and death, in the face of changing Nature are graced by new images.
It is time that Vaughan is a less effective preacher, a far less and finished artist than Herbert. His temper is more that of mysticism. The sense of guilt is less acute with him than it was with Donne. In Herbert, the sense of sin is the great alienator of man’s soul from God but in Vaughan it is merged in a wider consciousness of separation; it is a veil between the human soul and that Heaven, which is its true home. His soul is ever questing back to the days of his own youth or to the youth of the world. His soul goes back to the days of Christ’s sojourn on earth when God and man were in a more intimate contact. In the poem, “Religion” he says:
In Abraham’s Tent the winged guests
(O how familiar then was heaven !)
Eate, drinke, discourse, sit downe, and rest
Until the Coole, and shady Even.
Again in “Resurrection and Immortality” he yearns for the final reconciliation beyond the grave:
One everlasting Sabbath there shall run
Without succession, and without a sun.
To this mystical mood Nature reveals herself not as a museum of spiritual analogies but as a creature simpler than man. By virtue of its simplicity and innocence she is in closer harmony with God. Vaughan achieves adequate imaginative vision in short passages but the spirit of these passages throughout his religious verse more quietistic, less practical in spirit than Herbert’s.
Vaughan spent his youth among the romantic glens of the valley of the Usk in Northern Wales. The influence of the beautiful sights and scenes of nature is quite clear in his bets poems like “The World,” “Departed Friends,” and “The Hidden Flowers.” These poems show an extraordinary insight into the mystical life of Nature and the heart of childhood and a strange nearness to the unseen world. In “The Retreat,” he anticipates not only the central theme but also the style of Wordsworth’s great “Immortality Ode.” Like William Blake, he touches the deeper mysteries with childlike simplicity and unconsciousness in delicate and elusive music. He says:
O how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train.
Vaughan is at his best when he deals with the themes of childhood and of a communion with Nature and with eternity. He finds pure happiness of white-souled child fresh from a celestial home who feels:
Through all this fleshy dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
Vaughan sees Nature as symbolical to God. Among the best of his other poems is “The World.” In this poem we come across the magnificent image:
I saw eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
Vaughan is the great exponent of Christian Neo-Platonism in English. He echoes Herbert constantly, more than perhaps any other English poet echoes another. But his bond is religious not artistic and he is akin to Herbert in his earnestly practical piety. Curiously enough that the poems that stress this theme are not his best but his central Christian faith keeps Vaughan’s mysticism from dissolving into nebulous Pantheism of some later mystics. Few men of the 17th century approached God through Nature and their Senses, but Vaughan gets delighted to find the One in the many. He is like an exile on earth. He is the happiest when he has a glimpse of the white parity of heaven, or the presence of God in birds, tress, flowers or stones.
The real contributions of Vaughan to literature are those poems where he is mostly himself and calls no man a master. His mind and temper are essentially distinct from Herbert’s. In the poems, “The World” and “They Are All Gone into the World of Light,” we find this mystic approach. He becomes detached in mind from the ordinary interests and ideas of his times. As with a true mystic, his thoughts move in a rarer, remoter air. The concrete themes like the festivals in the Church do not suit him. The more mysterious themes of eternity, communion with the dead, Nature and childhood fascinated him and this theme received finer treatment in the poems mentioned above.
Vaughan is a much less intellectual poet than Donne. But as a mystic poet, he stands out prominent among others. The mystical quality of his poetry has made him distinct from other contemporary poets. He may not be a great poet so far as the art is concerned but he be remembered for his simple but thoughtful mysticism that has inspired many English poets of the succeeding ages.