Henry Vaughan

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

:: Poet Home :: Poetry :: Short Stories :: Contact ::

Henry Vaughan (April 17, 1622 − April 28, 1695) was a Welsh metaphysical poet and a doctor. Vaughan was born to Thomas Vaughan (son of writer and colonial investor William Vaughan) and Denise Morgan in Newton-upon-Usk, Breconshire, Wales. He spent most of his life in the village of Llansantffraed, near Brecon, where he is buried. Vaughan had a twin brother, the hermetic philosopher and alchemist Thomas Vaughan.

Both Henry and Thomas were schooled by the rector of Llangatock, Matthew Herbert. Their education with Herbert proceeded for six years preceding their attendance at Jesus College, Oxford in 1638 (Bartleby.com). However, around 1640 Vaughan's family agreed that law would be a career of great promise for Henry. It appears as though Vaughan complied with no resistance (Calhoun, 39).

Vaughan was a Royalist sympathizer and is thought to have possibly served during the English Civil War. His service would have been an interruption to his study of law. This would have also suggested upon his return, Vaughan began to practice medicine.

Vaughan took his literary inspiration from his native environment. His chosen name was, in fact, "Silurist" deriving from his homage to the Silures, the Celtic tribe of south Wales, which resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. This name is a reflection of the deep love Vaughan felt towards the Welsh mountains and valley where Vaughan spent most of his early life and professional life. By 1646, Henry married Catherine Wise. Together they had a family consisting of a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Lucy, Frances, and Catherine.


  • 1 Secular works
  • 2 Conversion
  • 3 George Herbert
  • 4 The true Henry Vaughan
  • 5 Legacy
  • 6 List of works
  • 7 External links and references

Secular works

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. However, this collection was not published until 1651, more than three years after it was written. It is believed that there was great crisis[citation needed] in Vaughan's life between the authorship and publication of Olor Iscanus. During these years William Vaughan died and he was evicted from his living in Llansantffraed. Vaughan also condemns this collection as 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 from crises felt in Vaughan's homeland, Breconshire. During the Civil War, there was never a battle fought on the grounds of Breconshire, however the effects of the war were deeply felt by Vaughan and his surrounding community. The Puritan Parliament had presented misfortune to this community, as they had ejected many of their foes, the Anglicans and Royalists. This was an obvious source of misfortune for Vaughan, for he too had lost his home in this time (Calhoun, 40).

There is a distinct difference between the atmosphere Vaughan attempts to convey in this work in comparison with his most famous work Silex Scintellians. Olor Iscanus is a direct representation of a specific period in Vaughan's life, which emphasizes 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 on "innocent blood" but also provides what seem to be eyewitness accounts of battles fought and his own "soldiery". Although Vaughan is found to be a Royalist, these poems express contempt for all current authority and a lack of zeal for the royal cause (Bartleby.com).


The period shortly preceding the publication of Henry Vaughan's Silex Scintillians marked an extremely important period of his life. Certain indications in the first volume, and explicit statements made in the preface to the second volume of Silex Scintillians, suggest that Vaughan suffered a prolonged sickness that inflicted much pain on the poet. 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 accredited to George Herbert. Vaughan claims that he is the least of Herbert's many "pious converts" (Bartleby.com). It is during this period of Vaughan's life that he adopts the saying "moriendo, revixi", meaning "by dying, I gain new life" (Calhoun, 132).

George Herbert

It was not until Vaughan's conversion that he encountered much success with his writings. With his conversion came the writing of Silex Scintillians, which brought acclaim to Vaughan. With the creation of Vaughan's Silex, came much debt to George Herbert. Not only did Herbert make way for Vaughn's newly founded spiritual life, but was highly involved in this new period of Vaughan's literary career. Both writers offer expertise on the dicrete lyric, have the ability to write distinct sonnets, and able to carry literary influence in "parodying love sonnets", transforming them into love poems. Outside of Silex Scintillians, Vaughan has had some success, however it is important that the majority of all of the success has been found after his conversion (Bartleby.com). It seems as though Vaughan's audience over the years have opted to forget about his writings to secular gods and literary idols, as well as verses to Civil War soldiers or friends, but is those that are conceived as a result of the "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling" (Grosart, 2) derived from his discipler George Herbert.

Archbishop Trench stated, "As a divine Vaughan may be inferior [to Herbert], but as a poet he is certainly superior" (Grosart, 2). Critics praise Vaughan's use of literary elements. Vaughn's use of monosyllables, long-drawn alliterations and his ability to "compel the reader" places Vaughan as "more than the equal of George Herbert". Yet others say that the two are not even comparable, due to the fact that Herbert is in fact the "Master". While these critics admit that Henry Vaughan use of words can be superior to Herbert's, his poetry is, in fact, worse. It is said that Herbert's thoughts as well as consistency are the key to his superiority (Grosart, 4).

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 without the direction of Herbert as his predecessor. One will never be able to deny the explicit spiritual influence of Herbert on Henry Vaughan (Calhoun, 2). The preface to Vaughan's Silex Scintillians 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 blueprints through which Vaughan modeled to create his work. Silex Scintillians is most often classed with this collection of Herbert's. Silex Scintillians borrows the same themes, experience, and beliefs as The Temple. There are differences between the two, in that Vaughan extends to unchartered territory that Herbert seemed not to dare to venture into. 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 with George Herbert is Mount of Olives. Once such example from Mount of Olives is the passage, "Let sensual natures judge as the 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 is an extremely apparent echo of Herbert's Rose (Calhoun, 2):

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.

In spite of Vaughan's apparent originality, it is not difficult to find traces of Vaughan's emersion in Herbert's style and diction. Even at his best, Vaughan seems to be a repetition of many of Herbert's thoughts and themes. Critics have pointed out that Vaughan is enslaved to Herbert's works, using the same "little tricks" such as abrupt introductions and whimsical titles as the framework for his own work. This works as an advantage, but also a disadvantage. Critics also agree that Vaughan "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 (Grosart, 5-6).

The true Henry Vaughan

However, the view of Vaughan as a mere mimic of George Herbert's is not a universally consistent opinion. A critic of Vaughan's, Rev. Alexander B. Grosart denies, "that Henry Vaughan was an imitator of George Herbert" (Grosart, 3). There are moments in Vaughan's writings where the reader can identify Vaughan's true self, rather than an imitation of Herbert. This is when Vaughan is said to have contributed the greatest to the world of literature. Through his mind and temperance, Vaughan reveals his true self, breaking any chains of influence from any poet, namely Herbert. Vaughan shows style that is very relaxed, and is often noted for his superior descriptions in his poetry. He is recogzined for his naturalness, immediacy, and ability to relate the concrete through poetry (Calhoun, 63). Even in some instances when Vaughan borrows from Herbert, he makes it his own. Vaughan can draw from Herbert's language to create his own observations that are independent from Herbert himself. It is as if Vaughan takes propriortership of some of Herbert's work, yet makes it completely unique to himself (Calhoun,66).

In these times he shows a great distinction from any poet. Much of this 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 poets, like Wordsworth among others. Vaughan's mind thinks in terms of a physical and spiritual and the obscure relation between the two (Calhoun,132). Vaughan had a tendency to allow his thoughts to move to very original unfamiliar and remote places, and this reflected in his poetry. He was very loyal to writing about themes of the church and religious festivals, but found his true voice in the more mystical themes of eternity, communion with the dead, nature and childhood. Much of Vaughan's poetry has a particularly modern sound.

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 as he promotes the experience of the book itself to be the guide to reading. In fact, Vaughan gives no encouagement to any method to reading his works and offers no structure to comply with (Calhoun, 140)

Vaughan also began to elaborate on personal loss in two of well-known poems "The World", and "They Are All Gone in 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. Vaughan's newfound personal voice and persona are seen as the direct 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,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved in which the world
And all her train were hurled.


As is the case with many great writers and poets, Henry Vaughan was not as greatly acclaimed during his lifetime as after his death. Vaughan lived well before modern times, yet had an appreciation and seemed to contain some type of sympathy with the conditions and effects of alienation that attribute the term "modern." Before his death on April 23, 1695, at the age of 73, Vaughan had encountered very small fame. He was well aware of his writing being ahead of the times. Today, he is recognised as an influence on poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon.

List of works

  • Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished
  • Olor Iscanus
  • Silex Scintillians
  • Silex Scintillians II
  • Mount of Olives
  • Flores Solitudinis
  • Hermetical Physics
  • The Chemist's Key
  • Humane Industry
  • Thalia Rediviva

External links and references

  • "Essay on the Life and Writings of Henry Vaughan, Silurist" in The Works in Verse and Prose Complete of Henry Vaughan, Silurist, Vol. II. Rev. Alexander B. Grosart (ed.). Blackburn, 1871, pp. ix-ci. Reprinted in Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 27.
  • George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and the Conversion of the Jews. Matar, Nabil I., Studies in English Literature (Rice), 00393657, Winter 90, Vol. 30, Issue 1
  • Henry Vaughan: The Achievement of the Silex Scintillians. Calhoun, Thomas O. Associated University Presses, Inc, 1981. East Brunswick, New Jersey.
  • The Works of George Herbert. F.E. Hutchinson. 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.
  • The Dual Image. Harold Fisch. London: World Jewish Library, 1971, p. 41, Katz, Philo-Semitism, pp. 185-86.
  • Henry Vaughan
  • The Sacred Poets. Ch. 9-13 − The Cambridge History of English and American Literature.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from a Wikipedia article. To access the original click here.
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU
Free Documentation License".