Last reviewed: June 2018
April 17, 1622
April 23, 1695
A number of seventeenth century poets won new popularity in the mid-twentieth century in the wake of a revived interest in the Metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Among them was Henry Vaughan, whose works reflect the influence of the religious lyrics of Donne and his disciple George Herbert.
Vaughan came from a middle-class Welsh family. He was born in 1622 in Newton-on-Usk, Brecknockshire, and, with his twin brother Thomas, received his early education from Matthew Herbert, a clergyman who lived in a nearby village. The two young men probably entered Jesus College, Oxford, together in 1638; the records of Thomas’s matriculation, but not of Henry’s, are still extant.
Thomas Vaughan remained in Oxford to receive his degree and was later ordained a priest in the Church of England, but Henry went on to London in 1640 to study law. There is little factual evidence of his activities at that time, but he probably took advantage of the opportunity to become familiar with contemporary literature. His first volume of poetry reveals his knowledge of the works of many of the Cavalier poets of the court of Charles I.
Vaughan seems to have abandoned his legal studies about 1642 with the outbreak of the Civil Wars, and he served in King Charles’s army. He was also employed as clerk to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, chief justice of the Brecon Circuit, Vaughan’s home district.
Vaughan’s first book of poems was published in 1646. The verses included in it, polished love lyrics addressed to his lady, Amoret, are full of classical allusions and Platonic sentiments in the Caroline tradition of Thomas Carew, John Suckling, and Thomas Randolph. Vaughan wrote other such poems, but they were not published until later decades, partly because of unpopular political references; the Puritans controlled South Wales after 1646. A second, perhaps stronger, reason was Vaughan’s increasing preoccupation with religion. His growing seriousness was apparently intensified by the death of his younger brother William in 1648. His religious thought was also influenced by that of Thomas, who had turned his attention from orthodox Anglicanism to neo-Platonism, mysticism, and the occult sciences. Henry’s poetry reflects a neo-Platonic concept of childhood as a state during which people gradually grow away from the union with God that preceded their birth. Humankind’s constant yearning for the renewal of this perfect unity of the human and the divine is the subject of many of his lyrics.
Vaughan settled in his father’s home, the village of Newton-on-Usk, in 1646 and married Catherine Wise of Warwickshire soon afterward. At some time in the next decade he began practicing medicine. No evidence has been discovered to indicate when or where he received his medical training. The self-trained physician was a common feature in rural areas like his. His wife died in 1653, leaving her husband with four young children. Two years later he married his wife’s sister, Elizabeth, with whom he had four more children.
Vaughan’s prose and poetic works appeared with regularity during the years from 1650 to 1655. The best of his poems appeared in Silex Scintillans, published in two parts, in 1650 and 1655, and in Olor Iscanus, in 1651. Silex Scintillans (the flashing flint) is a two-part sequence of religious verse in the manner of Herbert, whom Vaughan calls his master. Whereas Herbert wrote from a priest’s position in The Temple (1633), however, Vaughan wrote as a pious individual who prays often and meditates over the Bible. The two parts are organized around poems of conversion, repentance, forgiveness, death, and judgment. Olor Iscanus (the swan of Usk) continues the secular themes of Vaughan’s poems from 1646 but emphasizes the rural life of retirement rather than the urban life of arts and politics. Vaughan places himself as the poet of the Usk River, which flowed through his native countryside. Vaughan disowned these secular lyrics when he published the second part of Silex Scintillans, and his first modern editors tended to pass over them, but readers have come increasingly to recognize that the sacred and secular poems reflect a single poetic sensibility.
Vaughn’s devotional essays, the Mount of Olives, came out in 1652, followed by translations of several religious and medical treatises. He published almost nothing for almost twenty years after this burst of creative activity. His final volume, Thalia Rediviva, a collection of his own later poems and of several by his brother, Thomas, who had died in 1666, appeared in 1678. Vaughan lived to a venerable age for his century, dying at the age of seventy-three in Llansantffraed.