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Henry Vaughan: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Henry Vaughan is a metaphysical poet whose work has often been overshadowed by that of the better-known George Herbert. Still, Vaughan is an original poet with a fresh, strong voice. In this lesson we will look at influences on his writing.

Henry Vaughan
Henry Vaughan

Renewed Interest

Recently the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan has received new attention from scholars for his literary contributions, his strength of voice, and his poetic genius. A jack of all trades, he wrote poetry, was spiritually aware, and practiced medicine.

Younger Years

Henry Vaughan and his twin brother, Thomas, were born in 1621 in Wales. His parents were part of the gentry, but many believe that their financial position was precarious. The twins entered school under the religious guidance of the rector of Llangatock, Matthew Herbert. They remained there until 1638 when they were sent to Jesus College, Oxford. In 1640, Henry left Oxford to study law in London, and in 1642 when the first English Civil War broke out, Vaughan left London for Wales where he accepted a job as secretary to the Chief Justice of the Great Sessions, Sir Marmaduke Lloyd. He stayed there until 1645, and this is where he met and married Catherine Wise; when she died in 1653, she left him with four young children. When the second English Civil War broke out, Vaughan gave up the law to join the Royalist army.

He Struggles to Find a Voice

Henry Vaughan, a metaphysical and religious poet, was the first to use slant rhyme or half rhyme (words that have similar, but not identical, sounds). He was influenced by the poet George Herbert. He and Herbert differed; Herbert celebrated the institution of the church, while Vaughan found more in common with the natural world. One of the important things to consider is that Vaughan was aware of Herbert's work, something of an anomaly in that most of the metaphysical poets were unaware of each other.

1646 he published 'Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished,' a collection of thirteen poems. Vaughan's voice in these poems is aided by the voice of other poets such as John Donne, who established the metaphysical style. His verse is typical of the 'Sons of Ben,' who were followers of Ben Jonson. More than half of the poems in the collection are love poems, with Catherine as the subject. In one, 'Upon the Priory Grove, His Usual Retirement' we are witness to the strength of Vaughan's feelings:

In our first innocence, and love:

And in thy shades, as now, so then,

We'll kiss, and smile, and walk again.

His Finest Work

In his book Silex Scintillans, published in 1650, we see Vaughan's voice take on new dimensions in the depth of his voice and his use of the scriptures. The first lines of each stanza in 'The Dedication' leave no doubt as to the poet's intention.

I.

MY God ! Thou that didst die for me,

These Thy death's fruits I offer Thee;

II.

Dear Lord, 'tis finished ! and now he

That copied it, presents it Thee.

III.

My dear Redeemer, the world's light,

And life too, and my heart's delight !

For all Thy mercies and Thy truth,

Vaughan's use of the scripture provides the reader with a clear understanding of the impact of God on Vaughan and the inadequacy he feels about his ability to return the love.

In his poem 'The World,' written in iambic pentameter, a poem where there are five feet of iambs, which is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In 'The World,' the title is meant to provide leeway for meaning. In the opening lines:

I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright;

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