Henry Vaughan

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Henry Vaughan
Born (1621-04-17)17 April 1621
Newton St. Bridget, Brecknockshire, Wales
Died 23 April 1695(1695-04-23) (aged 74)
Scethrog House, Llansantffraed, Brecknockshire, Wales
Occupation Poet
Nationality Welsh
Ethnicity Welsh
Period 17th century
Genre Poetry
Notable works Silex Scintillans
Spouse Catherine Vaughan, Elizabeth Vaughan
Relatives Thomas Vaughan

Henry Vaughan (17 April 1621 – 23 April 1695) was a Welsh author, physician and metaphysical poet.

He is chiefly known for his religious poetry contained in Silex Scintillans, which was published in 1650, with a second part published in 1655.[1]

Early life

Henry Vaughan was born at Newton by Usk in the parish of Llansantffraed (St. Bridget's), Brecknockshire, the eldest known child of Thomas Vaughan (ca.1586–1658) of Tretower, and Denise Jenkin (c. 1593) only daughter and heir of David and Gwenllian Morgan, of Llansantffraed. Although we can be sure of the year of Vaughan's birth from his own testimony, the month and day is not certain.[2] Vaughan was the elder of twins; his brother was Thomas Vaughan, the hermetic philosopher and alchemist.[3]

Vaughan could claim kinship with two powerful Welsh families, one Catholic and one Protestant. Their paternal grandfather, William, was the owner of Tretower Court.[4] His paternal grandmother, Frances, was the natural daughter of Thomas Somerset, who spent some twenty-four years in the Tower of London for his adherence to Catholicism[5]:pp. 6–7, 243–4 As she survived into Vaughan's boyhood, there may have been some direct Catholic influence upon his early nurturing. Vaughan shared a common ancestry with the Herbert family through the daughter of the famous warrior of Agincourt Dafydd ap Llywelyn, the 'Davy Gam, esquire' of Shakespeare's Henry V. He is not known to have claimed kinship with George Herbert, but may have been aware of the connection.


Thomas Vaughan later remarked that 'English is a Language the Author was not born to'.[6] Both boys were sent to school under Matthew Herbert, rector of Llangattock, and both wrote tributes to him. Since their interest was so clearly shared, the two brothers' intimate acquaintance with hermeticism may have dated from those years. Matthew Herbert doubtless reinforced the devotion to church and monarchy that the boys would have learned at home. Like several others among Vaughan's clerical acquaintances, he later proved uncompromising during the interregnum, and suffered sequestration imprisonment, narrowly avoiding banishment.[7]: s9, p.21

The buttery books of Jesus College, Oxford show that Thomas Vaughan was admitted to the college in May 1638, and it has long been assumed that Henry went up at the same time, though Wood states, "He made his first entry into Jesus College in Michaelmas term 1638, aged 17 years. There is no clear record to establish Henry's residence or matriculation, but the assumption of his association with Oxford, supported by his inclusion in Athenae Oxoniensis, is reasonable enough." Recent research in the Jesus College archives, however, suggests that Henry did not enter Jesus College before 1641, unless he did so in 1639 without matriculating or paying an admission fee, and left before the record in the surviving buttery books resumes in December of that year.[8] It has been suggested that Henry went to Oxford later, after Thomas, on the basis of a comparison of the poems each wrote for the 1651 edition of the Comedies, Tragi-Comedies, with Other Poems of William Cartwright, who had died in 1643. Thomas had clearly attended Cartwright's lectures, which were the great draw of the time, and wrote "When He did read, how did we flock to hear!"[9] Henry, however, apparently had not, since he begins his poem Upon the poems and plays of the ever-memorable Mr William Cartwright with the words "I did but see thee".[10] This poem and the 1647 poem Upon Mr Fletcher's plays are both celebrations of Royalist volumes that implied "a reaffirmation of Cavalier ideals and a gesture of defiance against the society which had repudiated them".[11]

As the Civil War developed, he was recalled home from London, initially to serve as a secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, a chief justice on the Brecknockshire circuit and staunch royalist. Vaughan is thought to have served briefly in the Royalist army[12] and, upon his return, began to practise medicine.

By 1646, he had married Catherine Wise, with whom he reared a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Lucy, Frances, and Catherine. His wooing of his first wife is reflected in "Upon the Priory Grove", from his first volume of poetry, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646). After his first wife's death, he married her sister, Elizabeth, probably in 1655.[13]

Secular works

Vaughan took his literary inspiration from his native environment and chose the descriptive name "Silurist," derived from his homage to the Silures, the Celtic tribe of pre-Roman south Wales which strongly resisted the Romans. This name is a reflection of the deep love Vaughan felt towards the Welsh mountains of his home in what is now part of the Brecon Beacons National Park and the River Usk valley where he spent most of his early life and professional life.

By 1647 Henry Vaughan, with his wife and children, had chosen life in the country. This is the setting in which Vaughan wrote Olor Iscanus ("the Swan of Usk"). However, this collection was not published until 1651, more than three years after it was written. It is believed that there was great crisis in Vaughan's life between the authorship and publication of Olor Iscanus.[14] During these years, his grandfather William Vaughan died and he was evicted from his living in Llansantffraed. Vaughan later decried the publication, having "long ago condemned these poems to obscurity".

Olor Iscanus is filled with odd words and similes that beg for attention despite its dark and morbid cognitive appeal. This work is founded on crises felt in Vaughan's homeland, Brecknockshire. During the Civil War there was never a major battle fought on the ground of Brecknockshire, but the effects of the war were deeply felt by Vaughan and his surrounding community. The Puritan Parliament visited misfortune on the community, ejecting many of their foes, the Anglicans and Royalists. This was an obvious source of misfortune for Vaughan, who also lost his home at that time.[15]:p40

There is a distinct difference between the atmosphere Vaughan attempts to convey in this work and in his most famous work, Silex Scintillans. Olor Iscanus is a direct representation of a specific period in Vaughan's life, which emphasises other secular writers and provides allusions to debt and happy living. A fervent topic of Vaughan throughout these poems is the Civil War and reveals Vaughan's somewhat paradoxical thinking that, in the end, gives no clear conclusion to the question of his participation in the Civil War. Vaughan states his complete satisfaction of being clean of "innocent blood" but also provides what seem to be eyewitness accounts of battles and his own "soldiery". Although Vaughan is thought to have been a royalist, these poems express contempt for all current authority and a lack of zeal for the royalist cause.[7]: s9, p.21 His poems generally reflect a sense of severe decline, which may mean that Vaughan lamented the effects of the war on the monarchy and society. His short poem "The Timber", ostensibly about a dead tree, concludes

"thy strange resentment after death
Means only those who broke – in life – thy peace."

Olor Iscanus also includes translations from Latin of Ovid, Boethius, and the Polish poet Casimir Sarbiewski.

Conversion and sacred poetry

It was not until the writing of Silex Scintillans that Vaughan received significant acclaim. The period shortly preceding the publication of the first volume of this work (1650) marked an important period of his life. Certain indications in the first volume and explicit statements made in the preface to the second volume (1655) suggest that Vaughan suffered a prolonged sickness that inflicted much pain. Vaughan interprets this experience to be an encounter with death and a wake-up call to his "misspent youth". Vaughan believes he is spared to make amends and start a new course not only in his life but in the literature he would produce. Vaughan himself describes his previous work as foul and a contribution to "corrupt literature". Perhaps the most notable mark of Vaughan's conversion is how much it is credited to George Herbert. Vaughan claims that he is the least of Herbert's many "pious converts".[7] It is during this period of Vaughan's life, around 1650, that he adopts the saying "moriendo, revixi", meaning "by dying, I gain new life".[15]:p132

The first volume of Silex Scintillans was followed by The Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions (1652), a prose book of devotions. It provides prayers for different stages of the day, for prayer in church, and for other purposes. It is written as a "companion volume" for the Book of Common Prayer, to which it alludes frequently, even though the Book of Common Prayer had been outlawed under the Commonwealth, and was also influenced by Lancelot Andrewes's Preces Privatae (1615) and John Cosin's Collection of Private Devotions (1627).[16] Flores Solitudinis (1654) contains translations from the Latin of two works by Spanish Jesuit Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, one by a fifth century bishop of Lyon, Eucherius, and a prose life of Paulinus of Nola by Vaughan.

Vaughan practised medicine, perhaps from as early as the 1640s, and attached to the second volume of Silex Scintillans (1655) a translation of Henry Nollius's Hermetical Physick; he produced a translation of Nollius's The Chymists Key in 1657.[17]

Poetic influences

Vaughan was greatly indebted to George Herbert, who provided a model for Vaughan's newly founded spiritual life and literary career,[7] in which he displayed "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling"[18]:p2 derived from Herbert.

Archbishop Trench has proposed that "As a divine Vaughan may be inferior [to Herbert], but as a poet he is certainly superior".[18]:p2 Critics praise Vaughan's use of literary elements. Vaughan's use of monosyllables, long-drawn alliterations and his ability to compel the reader place Vaughan as "more than the equal of George Herbert". Yet others say that the two are not even comparable, because Herbert is in fact the Master. While these critics admit that Henry Vaughan's use of words can be superior to Herbert's, they believe his poetry is, in fact, worse. Herbert's profundity as well as consistency are said to be the key to his superiority.[18]:p4

While the superiority or inferiority of Vaughan and Herbert is a question with no distinct answer, one cannot deny that Vaughan would have never written the way he did without Herbert's direction. The explicit spiritual influence of Herbert on Henry Vaughan[15]:p2 is undeniable. The preface to Vaughan's Silex Scintillans does all but proclaim this influence. The prose of Vaughan exemplifies this as well. For instance, The Temple, by Herbert, is often seen as the inspiration and model on which Vaughan created his work. Silex Scintillans is most often classed with this collection of Herbert's. Silex Scintillans borrows the same themes, experience, and beliefs as The Temple. Herbert's influence is evident both in the shape and spirituality of Vaughan's poetry. For example, the opening to Vaughan's poem 'Unprofitableness':

How rich, O Lord! How fresh thy visits are!

is reminiscent of Herbert's 'The Flower':

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev'n as the flowers in spring

Another work of Vaughan's that clearly parallels George Herbert is Mount of Olives, e.g., the passage, Let sensual natures judge as they please, but for my part, I shall hold it no paradoxe to affirme, there are no pleasures in the world. Some coloured griefes of blushing woes there are, which look as clear as if they were true complexions; but it is very sad and tyred truth, that they are but painted. This echoes Herbert's Rose:[15]:p2

In this world of sugar's lies,
And to use a larger measure
Than my strict yet welcome size.
First, there is no pleasure here:
Coloure'd griefs indeed there are,
Blushing woes that look as clear,
As if they could beauty spare.

Critics have complained that Vaughan is enslaved to Herbert's works, using similar "little tricks" such as abrupt introductions and whimsical titles as a framework for his own work, and that he "failed to learn" from Herbert. Vaughan carried an inability to know his limits and focused more on the intensity of the poem, meanwhile losing the attention of his audience.[18]:pp5-6

However, Alexander Grosart denies that Henry Vaughan was solely an imitator of George Herbert.[18]:p3 There are moments in Vaughan's writings where the reader can identify Vaughan's true self, rather than an imitation of Herbert. In such passages Vaughan is seen to demonstrate naturalness, immediacy, and ability to relate the concrete through poetry.[15]:p63 In some instances, Vaughan derives observations from Herbert's language that are distinctly his own. It is as if Vaughan takes proprietorship of some of Herbert's work, yet makes it completely unique to himself.[15]:p66 Henry Vaughan takes another step away from George Herbert in the manner to which he presents his poetry to the reader. George Herbert in The Temple, which is most often the source of comparison between the two writers, lays down explicit instructions on the reading of his work. This contrasts with the attitude of Vaughan, who considered the experience of reading as the best guide to his meanings. He promoted no special method of reading his works.[15]:p140

In these times he shows himself different from any other poet. Much of his distinction derives from an apparent lack of sympathy with the world around him. His aloof appeal to his surroundings detaches him and encourages his love of nature and mysticism, which in turn influenced other later poets, Wordsworth among others. Vaughan's mind thinks in terms of a physical and spiritual world and the obscure relation between the two.[15]:p132 Vaughan's mind often moved to original, unfamiliar, and remote places, and this reflected in his poetry. He was loyal to the themes of the Anglican Church and religious festivals, but found his true voice in the more mystical themes of eternity, communion with the dead, nature, and childhood. A poet of revelation who uses the Bible, Nature and his own experience to illustrate his vision of eternity.[19] Vaughan's poetry has a particularly modern sound.

Alliteration, which is conspicuous in Welsh poetry, is more extensively used by Vaughan than most of his contemporaries writing English verse, noticeably in the opening to 'The Water-fall'.[5]

Vaughan elaborated on personal loss in two well-known poems, "The World" and "They Are All Gone into the World of Light." Another poem, "The Retreat," combines the theme of loss with the corruption of childhood, which is yet another consistent theme of Vaughan's. Vaughan's new-found personal voice and persona are seen as the result of the death of a younger brother.

This is an example of an especially beautiful fragment of one of his poems entitled '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.[20]

Death and legacy

As is the case with many great writers and poets, Henry Vaughan was acclaimed less during his lifetime than after his death on 23 April 1695, aged 74. He is buried in the churchyard of St Bride's, Llansantffraed, Powys, where he had spent most of his life.[21]

He is recognised "as another example of a poet who can write both graceful and effective prose"[5] and influenced the work of poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon. The American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick named Vaughan as a key influence.

Musical settings

Several poems by Vaughan from Silex Scintillans have been set to music, including the following:

  • "The Evening-Watch" was used in "The Evening-Watch: Dialogue between Body and Soul" by Gustav Holst (1924).
  • The Eucharistic poem "Welcome, sweet and sacred feast" was set by Gerald Finzi as the anthem Welcome, sweet and sacred feast, from Three anthems, Op. 27 (1953).[22]
  • Peace was set as the first of Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell (1916-18), "My soul, there is a country".[23]


  • Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646)
  • Olor Iscanus (1647)
  • Silex Scintillans (1650 and 1655)
  • Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions (1652)
  • Flores Solitudinis (1654)
  • Hermetical Physics (1655), translated from the Latin of Henry Nollius
  • The Chymists Key (1657), translated from the Latin of Henry Nollius
  • Several translations from the Latin contributed to Thomas Powell's Humane Industry (1661)
  • Thalia Rediviva (1678), a joint collection of poetry with his brother Thomas Vaughan, after Thomas's death[24]

See also


  1. Oxford Companion to English Literature, s.v. Henry Vaughan
  2. "The poet's own testimony is precise about the year of his birth, but there is no evidence about the month and day" Hutchinson 1947, p. 14, citing Martin's first edition, p. 667
  3. Powys Literary Links – Henry Vaughan BBC mid Wales, 3 January 2006
  4. VAUGHAN family, of Tretower Court in Welsh Biography Online, at National Library of Wales. William Vaughan's children included THOMAS VAUGHAN (d. 1658), who m. the heiress of Newton in Llansantffraed; Henry Vaughan the Silurist (q.v.) and Thomas Vaughan (q.v.) were their sons.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Hutchinson, F. E. (1947). Henry Vaughan, A life and Interpretation, Oxford: Clarenden Press.
  6. 'Works of Thomas Vaughan', Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984, ed. Alan Rudrum with the assistance of Jennifer Drake-Brockman, a.k.a. Jennifer Speake
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Ward A. W. and Waller A. R. (Ed.) The Sacred Poets in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol 7
  8. Brigid Allen, "The Vaughans at Jesus College, Oxford, 1638–48", Scintilla, The Journal of the Usk Valley Vaughan Association, 4:2000, pp.68–78, cited in Alan Rudrum, article on Henry Vaughan in the Oxford English Dictionary of National Biography.
  9. Rudrum, "Works of Thomas Vaughan," p.582
  10. Rudrum, "Complete Poems of Henry Vaughan, p.88
  11. P.W. Thomas, "Sir John Berkenhead 1617–1679. A Royalist Career in Politics and Polemics, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1969", p.177
  12. Mathias, Roland (1975). Roland (ed.). "In Search of the Silurist". Poetry Wales. Swansea: Christopher Davies. 11 (2): 6–35. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Vaughan, Henry in Welsh Biography Online, at National Library of Wales; Oxford Companion to English Literature, s.v. Henry Vaughan
  14. His conversion in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 Calhoun, Thomas O. Henry Vaughan: The Achievement of the Silex Scintillans. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc, 1981.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/henry-vaughan; Oxford Companion to English Literature, s.v. Henry Vaughan
  17. Oxford Companion to English Literature, s.v. Henry Vaughan
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 Grosart, Rev. Alexander B. (ed.). Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist --in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II. London UK: Gale 1995. pp. ix–ci Blackburn, 1871, reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27, ed. Person J E.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Thomas, Noel K.,Henry Vaughan, Poet of Revelation, Churchman Publishing, Worthing, 1985. ISBN 1 85093 042 2
  20. Henry Vaughn, 'The World' – RPO
  21. Images of Wales: St Bride's Church, Llansantffraed juxta Usk, Breconshire. Accessed 19 April 2014
  22. http://www.boosey.com/cr/music/Gerald-Finzi-Welcome-Sweet-and-Sacred-Feast/6876
  23. http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=16188
  24. Oxford Companion to English Literature, s.v. Henry Vaughan; T. O. Calhoun, The achievement of Silex Scintillans, East Brunswick, New Jersey, 1981, p. 235


  • Calhoun, Thomas O Henry Vaughan: The Achievement of the Silex Scintillans. Associated University Presses, Inc, 1981. East Brunswick, New Jersey.
  • Fisch Harold The Dual Image. London: World Jewish Library, 1971, p. 41, Katz, Philo-Semitism, pp. 185–86.
  • Grosart Rev. Alexander B. (ed.) "Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist" in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II. Blackburn, 1871, pp. ix–ci. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27.
  • Hutchinson F. E. The Works of George Herbert. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945; to Henry Vaughan from the edition by The Works of Henry Vaughan, L.C. Martin, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd edn., 1957.
  • Matar, Nabil I George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and the Conversion of the Jews. Studies in English Literature (Rice), 00393657, Winter 90, Vol. 30, Issue 1
  • Sullivan Ceri The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert, and Vaughan. Oxford University Press, 2008

External links