‘The World’ by Henry Vaughan was published in 1650 is a four stanza metaphysical poem that is separated into sets of fifteen lines. Vaughan chose to structure this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of aaabbccddeeffgg, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. He also chose to write ‘The World’ within the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
One of the most important images in this text is that of the ring. Eternity is represented as a ring of light. There is no beginning or end to the ring, a fact which relates to the speaker’s overwhelmed reaction to seeing it “the other night.” It contrasts in its steadfastness and sheer vastness with his everyday life. Anything he might have previously valued immediately disappears from his mind. It is also important to note how the bright “pure and endless light” resembles the sun and therefore God. Although not mentioned by name till the end of this piece, God is the center of the entire narrative.
The image of Eternity is part of a larger comparison that runs through the entire piece, that between light and dark. Eternity is always on one side of the equation while the sins of humankind are on the other. They vary in complexity and maliciousness— from the overwrought lover to the swindling “statesman.” It is also interesting to consider the fact that light is unable to exist without dark. The speaker would not be able to recognize Eternity in all its purity without a knowledge of how dark his own world can be.
Summary of The World
The poem begins with the speaker describing how one night he saw “Eternity.” It appeared as a bright ring of light. He knew that all of time and space was within it. After looking upon it and realizing that God is the only thing worth valuing, he speaks on the various pursuits of humankind.
The speaker tells of those who pine for earthly happiness and forget to nurse their spiritual health. He also depicts the terrible deeds of a “darksome statesman” who cares for no one but himself. This person, as well as many others like him, feeds off the suffering of others.
Vaughan concludes the poem by describing the gluttonous among humankind and their preoccupation with food and wine. In the last lines, he attempts to persuade the reader to forget about the pleasures that can be gained on earth and focus on making it into Heaven.
Analysis of The World
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r.
In the first stanza of ‘The World’, the speaker begins by describing one special night in his life. He saw “Eternity.” He recalls it as being “a great ring of pure and endless light.” The sight changes his perspective on the world. He found in it a calmness and brightness that he’d never witnessed on earth and knew then that nothing man could do or create would compare.
As one would expect, encompassed within “Eternity” is all of the time. There are the short moments and the long, all controlled by the “spheres,” or the heavenly bodies which were thought to influence time and space. One of the interesting features of this section is that rather than being overwhelmed by the size of the universe or Eternity, the speaker is struck by how compressed everything becomes. Everything he knows and everything there ever has been or will be is within the light. The earth is hurled along within Eternity just like everything else. This decreases the importance of every day.
In the next lines, the speaker describes a “doting lover” who is “quaint” in his actions and spends his time complaining. This is one of a number of characters Vaughan speaks about residing on earth. They are intentionally described in demeaning terms in order to lessen one’s regard for human troubles and emotions. The man has with him an instrument, a “lute” and is involved with his own fights and fancies. His life is trivialized.
It seems as though in the final lines of this section that the man is weeping over his “dear treasure” but is unwilling to do anything to improve his situation. His actions are overwrought, exaggerated, and easy to look down on. He is the stereotypical depiction of a mourning, distressed lover.
The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg’d the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work’d under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain’d about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.
In the next set of lines, the speaker introduces another human stereotype, the “darksome statesman.” This person’s thoughts are “condemning.” If seen or heard they would reflect terribly on the person’s desires. He carries with him all the “woe” of others. The man has caused great pain due to his position. The speaker is able to infer these things about him due to the way he moved. The man did not seem to have anywhere, in particular, he needed to be. He “mov’d…so slow,” without the desire to help those who are dependent on him.
Vaughan’s speaker also states that he’s able to read the man’s thoughts upon his face. It is easy to see that he is focusing on dark topics and is forming new, horrible intentions. This way of living has marked itself upon his soul.
This entire section focuses on the depths a human being can sink to. Just like the previous stanza, the speaker is passing judgment on this person who is unable to shake off his past and the “clouds of crying witnesses” which follow him. The man is like a “mole” who works underground, away from the eyes of most of the population. The man is “fed” by “gnats and flies.” His “scowl” is furthered by the “blood and tears” he drinks in “as free.” While vague, these lines speak to how those in power use the suffering of others to improve their own situation.
The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg’d each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac’d heav’n in sense,
And scorn’d pretence,
While others, slipp’d into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
In the third stanza, the speaker moves on to discuss the emotional state of the “fearful miser.” This person spent his whole life on a “heap of rust,” unwilling to part with any of it. His greatest fear was always “thieves.” His distrust of others even extended to his own hands for fear they would misplace some prized possession. The following line outline how there are “Thousands” just like this one man, and all of them “frantic.”
He goes on to compare those who act as “epicure[s]” or people who take great pleasure in good food and drink. They place importance on physical pleasures. There are also those who “slopp’d into a wide excess.” They did not have a particular taste and lived hedonistic lives.
Finally, there is the “weaker sort.” They are enslaved by “trivial wares.”
Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”
In the final stanza, the speaker discusses how there are many kinds of people in the world and all of them strive for happiness. They might “weep and sing” or try to soar up “into the ring” of Eternity. The men and women “use no wing” though. This is a reference to the necessity of God in order to reach the brightness of the ring. If one does not embrace God their trip is going to be unsuccessful.
This final message is tied to another, that no matter what one does in their life to improve their happiness, it will be nothing compared to what God can give. At this moment, before they embrace God, they live “in grots and caves.” The unfaithful turn away from the light because it could show them a different path than the one they are on.
In the final lines, the speaker uses the first person. He refers to his own inability to understand why the people he has discussed made the choices they did. They have an inherent “madness” and the doomed dependence on materiality. It is one’s need to find physical, earthly happiness that will lead them from the “bright” path to Eternity.