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.
Early Life and Education
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 serve briefly in the Royalist army. He remained in this position for three years until he returned to London to practice medicine.
Marriage and Publication
It was during this time period, around 1646, that 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.
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 which 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.
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 day. This was followed by Flores Solitudinis in 1654 and The Chymists Key in 1657. After Vaughan’s death his brother publish a collection of his own, and Vaughan’s poetry titled, Thalia Rediviva, in 1678.
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.