Consider Henry Vaughan as a Metaphysical Poet

In order to justify Henry Vaughan as a metaphysical poet, we must first know what metaphysical poetry means. The term “Metaphysical” is applied to the poetry of John Donne and his followers. But ironically these poets did not know that they were a special kind of poets. Long after they had been dead, Dr. Samuel Johnson used the term in his book, “Life of Cowley” in 1779. He perhaps borrowed the term from John Dryden who wrote about John Donne that he affected “metaphysics not only in his satires but also in his amorous verses.” 

Actually, metaphysical poetry represents a sharp break with the conventional poetry of the Elizabethan period. Most of the Elizabethan verses are decorative and flowery in their quality. But metaphysical poetry has been differentiated from the other kinds by its peculiar “Conceits” later on known as “Metaphysical Conceits.” It is characterized by its conciseness, intellectual reasoning and fondness for conceits. It is distinguished by its learned imagery, argumentative quality and a peculiar blend of passion and thought. Colloquial style and abrupt but dramatic opening are also considered to be its elements. 

Vaughan’s poems possess several of the qualities enumerated above. Still, his poetry does not contain the sharp metaphysical qualities as we find in John Donne or in Andrew Marvell. the tone of his poems is in an essential sense reflective and philosophical. The subject matters of his poems are, to a great extent, metaphysical. the theme of the poem, “Regeneration” has abruptly been taken from a passage in the “Song of Solomon” to be found in the Bible. The word, “Regeneration” implies a change from despondency to joy. Using a number of symbols, the poet explains how a sinful man reaches the ultimate goal, the achievement of God’s blessings. in the poem, “Shower” he expresses the belief that repentance over one’s sins is necessary to obtain God’s grace and only love can “unlock the way” to heaven. The poem “Retreat” is the expression of Vaughan’s mystical belief that the child comes into this world from heaven and can retain heavenly memories till he grows up. The poem, “Peace” gives us the idea that there is a country far beyond the stars where smiling peace dwells. The poem, “The World” presents us a metaphysical theme of the contrast between eternity and this world which is governed by the concept of time. Eternity is that everlasting world of spirit which is beyond the reach of the most of the men who spend their time in the pursuit of temporal joys.

The blending of emotion and thought is one of the important marks of metaphysical poetry and in Vaughan, there is a fine blend of deep religious emotion with intellectual thinking. In the poem, ” Regeneration,”  we find an orderly and logical development of the thought that gives to the poem an intellectual character. Through well-defined stages, the poet searches his regeneration in the conclusion of this poem. The religious emotion lies in the poet’s description of his closeness to heaven during the time of “angel – infancy.” In a similar way, Vaughan has fused a deep religious emotion with the logical development of the theme in the poem, “The World.”

Ingenious and far-fetched conceits, termed metaphysical conceits occur in abundance in the poetry of Vaughan. These conceits strike us by their ingenuity and by their justness. In the poem, “Regeneration” the poet speaks of frost lying in the heart obstructing the new-birth. These are surely winds blasting his infant binds and the sin-like clouds eclipsing his mind on his way to regeneration. There is a metaphysical conceit also in the picture of the poet finding and picking up the pair of scales from the top of the hill and then proceeding to weigh his recent sorrows against his pleasures. The metaphors used in the following lines of the poem, “The Retreat” are an example of metaphysical conceits.

But, ah! my soul with too much stay

Is drunk, and staggers in the way.

The images of Eternity and Time are themselves metaphysical conceits in the poem, “The World” because of their ingenuity and their fanciful quality. In short, Vaughan’s poems abound with such other metaphysical conceits.

The poems of Vaughan are finely characterized by concentration and conciseness. The short poem, “The Retreat” is the best example of this quality. Every line of this poem is packed with meaning. In the poem, “The World,” the various lusts of this world are described in a very terse style. Like other metaphysical poets, Vaughan has started his poems abruptly and in a colloquial manner. An example of the abrupt and personal opening is found in “Shower:”

‘T was so; I saw thy birth.

Unlike other metaphysical poets like John Donne and Herbert, Vaughan has infused his poems with love of Nature. Besides, there is a strong note of mysticism in his poetry. It has been rightly said of him that he prays not in a church but in the open air. In spite of having other elements, Vaughan’s poetry is abundantly rich in terms of metaphysical elements.


Founder & CEO, Hamandista Academy  

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