Henry Vaughan

H enry Vaughan is remembered today as an accomplished lyrical and religious poet. His work has become more celebrated since his death. Numerous poets whose names are better known than his, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Alfred Lord Tennyson, have claimed him as an influence.

Henry Vaughan Quote


Life Facts

  • Henry Vaughan was born in New St. Bridget, Brecknockshire, Wales in April of 1621.
  • ‘Silex Scintillans’ was one of Vaughan’s most popular collections. 
  • Vaughan had four children with his first wife.
  • In 1652, Vaughn published Mount of Olivers, or Solitary Devotion, a book of prose devotions.
  • Henry Vaughn died on 23 April 1695 at the age of 74.

Interesting Facts

  • ‘The Dedicationis one of his best poems, it was included in ‘Silex Scintillans’.
  • Vaughan worked as secretary to the Chief Justice of the Great Sessions, Sir Marmaduke Lloyd.
  • Catherine, his wife, died in 1653 and Vaughan married her sister soon after.
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson claimed him as an important influence.
  • He is buried in the churchyard of St Bride’s, Llansantffraed, Powys.


Famous Poems by Henry Vaughan

‘The World’ describes the risk that men and women take when they pursue earthly pleasures over God. They engage in earthly pleasures, ones that make them forget the heavenly future they should be keeping in the forefront of their minds. The speaker is well aware that many people act in a way that is not aligned with their best interests. The final lines contain a plea for the reader to give up their sinful ways and turn wholly towards God. 

 

‘They are all Gone into the World of Light’ is about the mystery of death and a speaker’s longing to learn about the fate of those he’s loved and who have passed away. The speaker spends the first lines of the poem mourning his loneliness and the loss he’s experienced. He desires to understand the afterlife and see through everything that obscures his understanding of it. 

 

‘The Retreat’ is a poem that looks to the past and a speaker’s better days. He expresses his desire to return to a time when everything was simpler than it is today. He sees this past as his “angel infancy” where he was pure and untroubled. In the end, he alludes to his own death and how that’s the only way he’s going to make it back to this period of happiness. 

 

‘Unprofitableness’ is an eighteen line poem that contains an extended conceit that speaks about desire to speak with God but an inability to do so. He praises God and God’s ability to better the speaker’s life. He’d like to have the opportunity to speak to him, to thank him for what he’s done. Although he can’t do so, he is very grateful for everything that he has become. 

 

Peace is a simple poem in which the speaker talks about his soul, the world of peace and heaven before him, and all that he has to look forward to. He speaks about a “country / Afar beyond the stars” and the Christian religious traditions associated with Vaughan’s perception of heaven. In heaven, everything will be aligned and perfect. 


Early Life

Henry Vaughan was born in New St. Bridget, Brecknockshire, Wales in April of 1621. He was a twin and the eldest child, of Thomas Vaughan and Denise Jenkin. His family was quite well established and able to trace their ancestry back to two powerful Welsh families.

 

From a young age Vaughan and his brother, Thomas, were educated at religious schools under the guidance of the rector of Llangatock, Matthew Herbert. Herbert helped to endow the boys with an interest in hermeticism, a set of philosophical and religious beliefs based primarily upon the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The movement can be traced back to Alexandria where it unified elements of religious mysticism with Hellenistic philosophy and Egyptian occultism. Vaughan’s brother would become known for his passion for this strain of philosophy, as well as for alchemy. 

 

Vaughan and his brother studied together at home until 1638 when they were sent to Jesus College, Oxford, they were both seventeen years old. In 1640, Vaughan left Oxford to study law in London. Two years later the English Civil War broke out and he left his studies to return to Wales. It was here that he accepted a job as secretary to the Chief Justice of the Great Sessions, Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, in Breconshire. Lloyd was a staunch royalist, lending credence to speculation that Vaughan served briefly in the Royalist army. He remained in this position for three years until he returned to London to practice medicine. 


Early Career and Marriage

Around 1646 Vaughan met and married Catherine Wise. The two had four children, one boy, Thomas, and three girls, Lucy, Francis, and Catherine. Vaughan spent time writing about courting his future wife in his first volume of poetry titled, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished. It was published the same year the couple’s marriage. 

 

The marriage did not last long and Vaughan was left to raise four children when Catherine died in 1653. In 1650, only a few years before her death, Vaughan published what is considered to be his finest work, Silex Scintillans, or “The Fiery Flint.” It is within this text, which was published in parts, that Vaughan’s poetic voice is truly established. It acquires a depth and certainty not present in his previous works. He is also seen to utilize the scriptures, a technique for which he would later become known. One poem from this collection that is of particular note is, ‘The Dedication.’ It is clear from his work that God was a major influence on his poetry, and his life in general. 


Writing Career and Relationships

The Vaughan family was living in the country at this time but all was not well on a personal level. His grandfather, William Vaughan, died during this period, the effects of the Civil War were changing the landscape of his Wales, and Vaughan was at one point, evicted from his home. These events, coupled with frustration over the poems he had produced, led to a delay in the publication of Olor Iscanus. Although born from a place of chaos, the works he produced during this period reflected well on the nature of his life. He was torn between fighting in the wars and remaining clean of the blood of innocents. 

 

In 1652, Vaughn published Mount of Olivers, or Solitary Devotion, a book of prose devotions. It provided a number of different prayers for various times of the day. This was followed by Flores Solitudinis in 1654 and The Chymists Key in 1657. After Vaughan’s death, his brother publishes a collection of his own, and Vaughan’s poetry titled, Thalia Rediviva, in 1678.

 

 Vaughan was not along for long; soon after his first wife’s death, he married Catherine’s sister, Elizabeth. In 1651, one year after the publication of Silex Scintillans, which had brought Vaughan significant acclaim, Vaughan published Olor Iscanus, or “The Swan of Usk.” This was a volume of secular poetry that also contained four prose translations. The title refers to the river “Usk” which ran near his hometown. This collection is known for its meditations on natural beauty and remained unpublished for three years after it was finished. 


Death

Henry Vaughn died on 23 April 1695 at the age of 74 and was buried in the churchyard of St Bride’s, Llansantffraed, Powys, a place in which he spent much of his youth. As if often the case with artists, his work has become more celebrated since his death. He is now known as a poet who was accomplished in both lyrical and straightforward prose. Later poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Alfred Lord Tennyson, have claimed him as an influence. 


Influence from other Poets

Henry Vaughan was notably influenced by writers such as John Donne and George Herbert.


Poems by Henry Vaughan

Explore poetry by Henry Vaughan below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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