Doctor. Poet. Welshman.
Henry Vaughan, 1621-1695, was the last poetic voice of an era espousing the doctrine of mystic correspondence, which was every bit as groovy as it sounds. It was the philosophy of the Middle Ages and enjoyed a Renaissance in the first half of the 17th Century under the leadership of poets such as John Donne and George Herbet, though even their talents couldn't keep it from going the way of the dodo by 1700. Seems the immense weights of materialsm and rationalism proved too much for the idea of drawing complex, intuitive analogies between the worlds of creatures and spirits.
Vaughan's interests in the occult only inspired a brief bout with poetry in his life, which saw his law studies in London interrupted by the English Civil War. After fighting briefly on the losing side, the head of which was chopped off in 1649, he split back to Wales and took up medicine, which at the time one could do with absolutely no training or credentials.
When he wasn't prescribing courses of leeches for every ailment under the sun, he scratched out the following collections:
- 1646: Collection of Secular Verse
- 1650: Silex Scintillans (The Fiery Flint), a collection of sacred poems
- 1651: Olor Iscanus (The Swan of Usk), poems and translations.
The Swan of Usk refers to the river by his hometown of Scethrog
, near Llansantffraed
. Consult your local Welshman for correct pronunciation.
Vaughan's work is characterized by occult undertones--he often hints at having some secret knowledge relating to the teachings of the mythical Egyptian teacher Hermes Trismegistus, which is the last thing you want to hear about when you show up in his office complaining about a possible imbalance of your humors. Some of this was probably spillover from his twin brother Thomas, hermetic philosopher and unsuccessul alchemist, the only sort of alchemist there is.
Many of his poems start of sharply, then trail off into fairly personal musings. So when you pop in for just two little ounces of St. John's Wort, he hits you with this:
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,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
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 scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.
The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe
Like a thick midnight fog moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Where he did clutch his prey. But one did see
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
It rained about him blood and tears; but he
Drank them as free.
The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sat 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 hugged each one his pelf:
The downright epicure placed heaven in sense,
And scorned pretense;
While others, slipped into wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor, despised Truth say counting by
Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared 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 groats and caes, and hate the day
Because it shows 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 whispered thus:
'This ring the bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.'
That catchy little number, entitled The World, is one among many that might make you feel worse than you did when you came in. And what the hell is a pelf?
For more light cataclysmic reading, check out The Retreat, Corruption, and They Are all Gone into the World of Light.
I got this from an old college handout, but think it may be from here:
'Henry Vaughan.' The World.The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. Ed. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, W. W. and Company, Inc. 1995.