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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Henry Vaughan (1621–1695)

THERE is a quality about certain seventeenth-century writers of religious verse—Herbert, Crashaw, Quarles, and Vaughan—which makes them precious to the lovers of poetry. They had at times a mystic worshipfulness, a tenderness and depth of feeling, in the expression of spiritual aspiration, very rare and very lovely. They had too in common, though in varying degrees, something of literary genius; which, if it did not show in work steadily artistic and above criticism, was manifested in gleams and flashes, when the magic word was caught and the inevitable phrase coined. This applies in full force to Henry Vaughan, whose poems, in a few classic examples, burn with a pure flame of religious fervor, and have a charm that makes them unforgettable.

Henry Vaughan—the Silurist, as he was called because of his residence among the Silures, the ancient name for the folk of South Wales—was born at Newton-by-Usk in that principality, in the year 1621. His family was an old and highly respectable one of the vicinage. Educated by a private tutor, he with his twin brother Thomas entered Jesus College, Oxford, in 1638, but was not graduated. Both the young Vaughans were stanch royalists, that political complexion being a tradition in the family; Henry was imprisoned during the Civil War. His private patrimony being inadequate to his support, he qualified for medicine, and practiced that profession with repute for many years in his native place. His literary work was thus an avocation pursued for the love of it. During his long and quiet life, Vaughan published various volumes of poems and translations. His first book appeared when he was twenty-five, and bore the title ‘Poems, with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished’ (1646). Subsequent books were: ‘Olor Iscanus, a Collection of Select Poems and Translations’ (1650); ‘Silex Scintillans, or Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations’ (1650–1); ‘The Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions’ (1652); ‘Flores Solitudinis, or Certain Rare and Elegant Pieces’ (1654); and ‘Thalia Rediviva, the Pastimes and Diversions of a Country Muse, in Divine Poems’ (1678).

The verse which preserves Vaughan’s name in fragrant memory is contained in the ‘Silex Scintillans.’ Half a dozen pieces in that collection are familiar to all students of the choicest English religious song. The quaint classical titles of his books give a notion of the mystic, removed nature of this poet’s Muse. In many lyrics he waxes didactic, and moralizes upon man and God in a fashion not edifying to the present-day reader, if it was when they were composed. But when inspiration visited him, and he could write such a unique poem as ‘The Retreate’—a kind of seventeenth-century forerunner of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on the Intimations of Immortality’—or an exquisite elegiac poem like ‘They are All Gone’ (a prime favorite with Lowell), Vaughan found lyric expression for the spiritual mood such as few men have found in the whole range of British song. His religion did not clog his poetry, but lent it wings; and no more sincere and intimate personal confession of faith can be named. He has the high rhapsody of the Celt, with a piquant gift in the use of the mother English. One thinks of him with affection, and re-reads his best poems with a sense of beauty communicated, and a breath deeper taken for delight.

During his last years Vaughan seems to have ceased from literary activity. He lived quietly in the lovely vale watered by the Usk, the river he loved. The genuine humility of the man is implied in the Latin inscription he desired to have placed upon his tomb: “An unprofitable servant, the chief of sinners, I lie here. Glory be to God! Lord have mercy upon me!”