Henry Vaughan, a Welsh mystic, although he wrote under the influence of John Donne and George Herbert in his early poems, had many points to differ from them. In his nature poems, he was closer to the still unborn poets like William Blake and William Wordsworth. No doubt, he was primarily a metaphysical poet, still, he showed the marks of simplicity quite unthought of in the poetry of his predecessors. This simplicity of thought and expression is found in the poems dealing with Nature and Childhood.
Vaughan’s attitude to Nature was the immediate effect of the influence worked upon him by the beautiful and romantic glens of the valley of the Usk in Northern Wales where he spent his youth. He was not confined to the four walls of the church and so not disturbed like Donne and Herbert by the sense of guilt. He came out and walked upon the plains breathing fresh air. It has been rightly said of him by Cazamian that he prays not in a church like Herbert but in the open air. His own picturesque country inspired him with love for Nature and this feeling mingles with his Christian meditations. He imparts something which is romantic and modern to the best of his work.
The intimate and religious feeling for Nature has linked Vaughan and Wordsworth, the two poets of two different ages, together. Vaughan shows an open air love for all natural sights and sounds and a subtle sympathy even with the fallen timber or the stones at his feet. He is happier away from the world of men and can rejoice equally in “Dear Night! this world’s defeat, the stop to busy fools” and in the stir that heralds the dawn. In “Regeneration,” we have some exquisite pictures of Nature. There are a series of vivid and concrete pictures in the poem. We can visualize a real picture when he speaks of a grove of stately height whose branches meet and mix on every side. What a nice description of the sun which is shooting its golden rays. One of the loveliest but most realistic pictures is to be found in the following lines:
And heaven its azure did unfold,
Checkered with snowy fleeces;
The air was all in spice,
And every bush
The poem, “The Shower” contains a string of vivid pictures. In the first stanza, we have the idea of how the cloud forms in the upper region of the sky. It reminds us Shelley’s “The Cloud.” We have a picture of the evaporation which leads to the formation of clouds and the shower of rain-drops falling from those clouds. It is in his observation of Nature too that Vaughan achieves his most felicitous epithets such as: “the unthrift sun,” “the pussy clouds,” and “the purling corn.” The setting of these natural descriptions is usually religious as in “The Rainbow” or “The Dawning” but the lover of Nature is as apparent as the mystical thinker.
In spite of the many borrowings, Vaughan surprises us by his idea of childhood. His attitude to childhood is found in no other Pre-Romantic poets. Therefore, in the poetry of childhood, Vaughan’s originality is felt very strongly. In the life of childhood, Vaughan sees divine innocence. In his two poems, “The Retreat” and “Childhood,” Vaughan seems almost to anticipate the eighteen-century French thinker Rousseau, who believed that it was the most desirable to leave a child to grow according to his instincts. According to Rousseau, all things are good as God made them but all things degenerate at the touch of man. He said that we should “let childhood nature mature in the child.” But Vaughan’s poem, “The Retreat” anticipates Wordsworth’s famous Immortality Ode with even greater closeness. The poem called “Childhood” develops the subject even more explicitly than “The Retreat” – namely the subject of the innocence of childhood and corrupting influence of maturity. In this poem, Vaughan writes:
Since all that age doth teach is ill,
Why should I not love childhood still?
Childhood is the state which Vaughan studies and scans more than even I studied man. If it was possible to be still a child, Vaughan would quickly choose it and by playing go to Heaven. But the opening lines of the poem express the impossibility of going back to childhood:
I cannot reach it; and my striving eye
Dazzles at it, as at eternity
According to Vaughan, a child is close to heaven, having just come from there. Even coming to the world he has retained the celestial light with which he can catch the glimpses of the bright face of God in whose presence he used to live before his birth. When the child looks at a cloud or a flower, these beautiful objects remind him of the higher beauty and the glory with which the child used to be familiar with in the heaven. In spite of the imprisoning restraints of this body of flesh, the child can see the bright rays of heaven. The child’s thoughts are heavenly thoughts. When he grows into a man, all memories of the heaven are forgotten. Then the soul falls under the influence of this material world and becomes oblivious of its pre-natal existence.
In spite of having a close resemblance between Vaughan’s and Wordsworth’s attitude to childhood, the two are not identical. Wordsworth’s poem abounds with a rich although fantastic philosophy about childhood. Both of them glorify childhood, but Wordsworth’s eulogy of childhood becomes too extravagant when he calls the child a seer, a mighty prophet, and a great philosopher, epithets which we generally use for such men as Plato and Aristotle.
Metaphysical poetry always blends reason and emotion but Vaughan ignores reason in his attitude to Nature and Childhood. Here he offers us not a meditation, but a vision or intuition which reminds us at times of a much later age.