Before Henry Vaughan experienced, around 1648, a sharp conversion to profound faith, he experienced a conversion to place, a return to his sense of what his birthplace, the Usk Valley, was and meant. That earlier conversion is the clue to what distinguishes the poetry after the second: for Vaughan, as derivative as he is of Herbert in some respects, is most himself when he accommodates, within Herbert’s resources of cadence and diction, a vision that unites God’s grace with a sense of place. See, for instance, the astonishing closing lines of “Regeneration”:
Here I reposed; but scarce well set,
A grove descried
Of stately height, whose branches met
And mixed on every side;
I entered, and once in,
Amazed to see ’t,
Found all was changed, and a new spring
Did all my senses greet.
The unthrift sun shot vital gold,
A thousand pieces,
And heaven its azure did unfold,
Checkered with snowy fleeces;
The air was all in spice,
And every bush
A garland wore; thus fed my eyes,
But all the ear lay hush.
Only a little fountain lent
Some use for ears,
And on the dumb shades language spent
The music of her tears;
I drew her near, and found
The cistern full
Of divers stones, some bright and round,
Others ill-shaped and dull.
The first, pray mark, as quick as light
Danced through the flood,
But the last, more heavy than the night,
Nailed to the center stood;
I wondered much, but tired
At last with thought,
My restless eye that still desired
As strange an object brought.
It was a bank of flowers, where I descried
Though ’twas midday,
Some fast asleep, others broad-eyed
And taking in the ray;
Here, musing long, I heard
A rushing wind
Which still increased, but whence it stirred
No where I could not find.
I turned me round, and to each shade
Dispatched an eye
To see if any leaf had made
Least motion or reply,
But while I listening sought
My mind to ease
By knowing where ’twas, or where not,
It whispered, “Where I please.”
“Lord,” then said I, “on me one breath,
And let me die before my death!”
The account of the poet’s experience, and the presence of God, are overtaken by, and then expressed in, the geographic imagination: a state of salvation discovered as the garden of Eden. The wind–the Holy Spirit made breeze–cannot be located, but is everywhere: “It whispered, “Where I please.”” But that “where I please” is only heard in a landscape, constitutes a particular bounded region. The shimmering effects of sensory disorientation are made coherent by the stable mapping on which they are set. In the vision of what is discovered, wandered through, compassed and encompassed, Vaughan is the predecessor of the Romantics, as much as he is when he affirms a strange goodness of childhood. For even childhood, is a location, not only in time but also in space:
I CANNOT reach it ; and my striving eye
Dazzles at it, as at eternity.
Were now that chronicle alive,
Those white designs which children drive,
And the thoughts of each harmless hour,
With their content too in my pow’r,
Quickly would I make my path ev’n,
And by mere playing go to heaven.
Why should men love
A wolf, more than a lamb or dove ?
Or choose hell-fire and brimstone streams
Before bright stars and God’s own beams ?
Who kisseth thorns will hurt his face,
But flowers do both refresh and grace ;
And sweetly living—fie on men !—
Are, when dead, medicinal then ;
If seeing much should make staid eyes,
And long experience should make wise ;
Since all that age doth teach is ill,
Why should I not love childhood still ?
Why, if I see a rock or shelf,
Shall I from thence cast down myself ?
Or by complying with the world,
From the same precipice be hurl’d ?
Those observations are but foul,
Which make me wise to lose my soul.
And yet the practice worldlings call
Business, and weighty action all,
Checking the poor child for his play,
But gravely cast themselves away.
Dear, harmless age ! the short, swift span
Where weeping Virtue parts with man ;
Where love without lust dwells, and bends
What way we please without self-ends.
An age of mysteries ! which he
Must live that would God’s face see ;
Which angels guard, and with it play,
Angels ! which foul men drive away.
How do I study now, and scan
Thee more than e’er I studied man,
And only see through a long night
Thy edges and thy bordering light !
O for thy centre and midday !
For sure that is the narrow way !
I quote the poem in its entirety to note what is, if not a falling off, a turning off, in the second stanza (“Were now that Chronicle alive”), at which point Vaughan declines the imaginative path that the remarkable opening lines set out,and to which he only returns in the final stanza (“How do I study now”); there, framing the poem, is an imagining of childhood as a place, a thought that is not developed fully in the poem, but that nonetheless supports, on either end, the other thoughts that are worked up within it.
What is central often to Vaughan’s goodness, as it is not to Herbert’s, is a sense of distance and enormity in space that underlie some of his most famous imaginings of faith:
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.
I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.
O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.
Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
Could man outlook that mark!
He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.
And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into glory peep.
If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.
O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.
Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.
None of this seems especially metaphysical; the landscape, figurative though it is, is not as pliable as a conceit. Instead, it feels that Vaughan takes the distances and vistas which he repeatedly describes as givens, immovable features against which, upon which, a spiritual life moves and acts. When he writes “I see them walking in an air of glory,” it is difficult not to imagine the physical chasm that exists. It is more the stuff of Dante than of Donne.
In “The World,” the enumerated visions of the various men and women whose lives fall short of beatitude and grace might have stood sufficient, a poem (albeit a very different poem) unto itself–but instead Vaughan places them, and the world that they and we know, against a span of space, a ring of light, to which the poem makes persistent spatial reference, “there” and “where,” so as to situate and distance it from the heavenly vantage where Vaughan himself stands:
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.
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.
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
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.”
The sacred astronomy of the ring of light, even when a conceit for the wedding ring of God’s elect, is made to feel less allegorical, more fixedly real, than the vivid landscape of the world occupied by the types of sinful men; it is not only a sense of place, then that animates Vaughan’s verse, but a sense for how variously “place” may be imagined, what varieties of “place” there might be.