HENRY VAUGHAN

 

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1 Stevie Davies's book is the first full-length life of Henry Vaughan genuinely inspired by and equal to its subject, sensitive to every dimension of the poetry this young man poured out during some five years of battling through what we would now call a post-traumatic state. It was due to the Cromwellian Civil Wars and direct experience of 'this juggling fate of soldiery' in the Royalist armies. Dr Davies offers interpretations of the phases of Vaughan's life and work which could only have come from critic familiar with modern modes of psychological and linguistic attention; at the same time her tone is not only accessible but a delight, by turns astonishing by its lyric brilliance and entertaining us with sharply humorous appraisals of man or text.

A much respected critic, Stevie Davies is also a wonderful novelist and she at once immerses us in the poet's war-torn world and psyche, so that we are convinced of the intimate relevance of both to the biographer's life and to our own. This new account of the Silurist will surely become the standard work replacing F. E. Hutchinson's dutiful but rather stodgy Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation (Oxford, 1947), so largely dependent for its facts on the devoted biographical researches of Gwenllian Morgan and Louise Guiney, and offering little of critical interest to a modern reader.

The distinctiveness of Dr Davies's work lies not in any major new discoveries about Vaughan's life — the trail, though it seems likely that undiscovered traces may linger here and there, has probably gone too cold for that — but in the way she places many of the major poems, responded to as wholes, at the centre of critical attention. There is no hint here of that destructively piecemeal appreciation which, despite fine critical and scholarly work by specialists, especially Alan Rudrum's indispensable edition of the Complete Poems and his seminal insights into their hermetic resonances (Henry Vaughan, University of Wales Press, 1981), still bedevils run-of-the-mill academic evaluation of Vaughan. Stevie Davies shows how poem after poem charts, with searing honesty, alternations between direct perception of imminence and horror at a personal life which 'is loose and spills'.

It is helpful to remember that Vaughan's greatest poems were written before the poet reached the age of thirty, and were largely envisioned out of doors or even, to go by the phrasing, actually composed on walks along the Usk or up the Allt, typically at sunrise or under the stars. For it is (to borrow musical terms) the erratic intervals in his thematic structures — as if he were spontaneously noting responses to changing surroundings and turbulent emotions — that, drawn out through whole poems convey to the modern reader such truth to experience. But these vital signs can be ignored, or critically misinterpreted, by those who envisage the writer as an elderly eccentric occasionally (if inexplicably) throwing off ecstatic 'shoots of everlastingness' amid largely boring doctrinal lucubrations. It seems that Vaughan's originality, at his frequent best, lies in not writing staid pieces with predetermined structures and messages, but keeping his eye on turns and twists of intellect and emotion, and a molten rush of immediate perception, the sudden melting or freezing of 'these mountains of cold ice in me'.

Modern insights regarding the relationship of language to reality should make us sensitive to the experiential shapes Vaughan creates with even quite specific Christian (as well as alchemical) language. But we need go no further than the 1631 translation of St. Augustine's Confessions to see that he would have been familiar with an ancient (even pre-Platonic ) tradition that acknowledges the inadequacy of religious language to encompass its subject. It is a delight, for example, to find Vaughan using a distinctive phrase 'Oppressed I' (at the crisis-point of that magnificent confessional poem, 'Distraction') that suggests his familiarity with the following passage: 'Too late beganne I to love thee. O thou beauty both so ancient and so fresh, yea too too late came I to love thee. For behold, thou wert within me, and I out of myselfe, where I made search for thee; deformed I, wooing these beautiful pieces of thy workmanship...' Intertextuality is another aspect of Vaughan now entirely acceptable — we are unlikely to fret as readers once did at the way he plays on phrases from George Herbert's poems, aware as we are not just of Vaughan's deliberate indebtedness to Herbert but also of the great psychological and artistic difference between these two poems.

Happening to re-read George Steiner's Presences as I was preparing this review, I was struck by the relevance of Steiner's understanding of writing and reading not only to the modern writer and reader but also to a man like Vaughan, conscious of living through a crisis of culture in certain crucial respects not unlike our own. Readers responsive to Vaughan have always perceived his poems as a particularly personal and direct mode of communication. They convince us that he experienced (in Evelyn Underhill's terms) at least the three initial phases of the mystic life: first, 'that short and raptuous trance ... in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision' (Mysticism); then a tortured sense of his own imperfections; and (not necessarily in sequence) a more settled illumination, when the world appeared to him transformed into 'hymning circulations'. In his moving preface to Silex Scintillans II, Vaughan offered his hymns to the Church as a mode of sacred writing — records of a genuine search which might be of help to others, as writing them might have been to him. So it has always puzzled critics why Vaughan essentially, despite Thalia Redeviva, then abandoned poetry. Did he, Stevie asks, 'just dry up'? Perhaps, as with Wordsworth, intensity of vision faded as the poems worked their healing.

Some have thought it possible, though, that Vaughan passed through a dark night of the soul during which the arts of language came to seem too liable to 'self-ends', and were abandoned for more immediately practical and modest forms of healing. In view of the number of poems in Silex haunted by the wish to die —'O for that night! where I in him, / Might live invisible and dim' — Vaughan may indeed have plunged eventually into that dark state which precedes, for many mystics, a permanent awareness of union, typically followed by active communal life. Certainly Vaughan did go on to spend nearly forty years as a country doctor, apparently writing (or publishing) little or no more verse. On the other hand, a certain waspishness recorded of him in later life, suggests that he remained all too (or perhaps reassuringly) unsaintly; as his cousin the biographer Aubrey claimed, he was always 'prowd and humorous'. But since mystic union seems not to protect even saints against irascibility, this may not be evidence either way! Dr Davies considers most of the possibilities — though she is quite hard, I think, on the waspish Vaughan.

For instance, the fact that Vaughan was, in old age, unwilling to give money to his estranged daughter Catherine unless she would collect it from him in person, week by week, suggests to Davies that he may have harboured 'a desire to mortify her'. I wonder though whether a man of Vaughan's temperament, as it is exhibited elsewhere, would have insisted on such frequent confrontations unless he hoped to retain immediate contact with his daughter, even perhaps to exert some influence over the way of life he so disapproved of? Nor does Stevie Davies view Vaughan's sense of human love with much enthusiasm. It seems to me worth considering whether when, in the early years of his first (and fertile) marriage, spiritual desperation turned him into a great poet, Vaughan's problems did not simply lie elsewhere, engulfing his whole poetic attention? After the early death of his first wife, Catherine, her younger sister Elizabeth also left a comfortable home in Warwickshire to marry Vaughan which suggests that family rumour may not have been all that unfavourable.

But one of the most engaging aspects of this biography is precisely the way it involves us in such issues of interpretation, whether of the life or of the work. Not least, its author, herself the mother of twins, offers a new interpretation of the impact of (probably identical) twinship on Vaughan's perception of a self bereft, in later life, of that close bond which must have existed between himself and Thomas — who, being the younger twin and so not inheriting Newton, left home to seek his fortune and became the most famous British alchemist of his day.

The poem 'Vanity of Spirit' captures Henry in the act of rejecting the more theoretical and scientific path taken by Thomas, of which also he clearly had personal experience. At this turning point, Henry sees that his own spiritual path must lie primarily through intuitive access to that vibrant natural world in which 'that's best / Which is not fixed, but flies, and flows', and even stones are sentient. It is an emphasis on observation supplemented by intuition that, above all perhaps, makes this 17th-century poet so appealing to modern readers fascinated by contemporary glimpses into bio-physics and evolution but desiring above all to interpret the spiritual dimensions of these new (and of course in some respects, most ancient) visions. Emerson might be said to summarize Vaughan's vision when he writes (in 'Circles') that
we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which apprise us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed but sliding. These manifold and tenacious qualities, this chemistry and vegetation, these metals and animals, which seem to stand there for their own sake, are means and methods only, are words of God, and as fugitive as other words.
I am indebted to Alan Rudrum, however, for the information that (as indicated by a recent discovery) Vaughan became in time an expert in the identification of native herbs, probably making use of them for medicinal purposes.

Earlier this year, in the course of preparing BBC Radio 4 interviews on Vaughan for the tercentenary of his death (April 23,1695), I found myself above his old home, Newton Farm, by a 'shrill spring' which may be that mentioned in 'Vanity of Spirit'. Looking around for a 'nook' in which he might have discovered those 'hieroglyphics quite dismembered', I suddenly became aware of several stones covered with man-made marks in the deep bed of the nearby stream. Examination by archaeologists from the University of Wales, Cardiff, and the National Museum of Wales seems to indicate that the stones, though they may be those Vaughan saw, have no pre-historic or early-Christian significance. An unexpected light was, however, thrown on the poem by our reading of it on site. The following lines had always seemed to me puzzling, so I drew attention to them: 'Weak beams, and fires flashed to my sight, / Like a young east, or moon-shine night'. To my companions, their relevance seemed quite obvious, since they knew by experience that the best light in which to see marks on stones is a slanting one, often to be found at dawn, or in moonlight. This delighted me, because it has routinely been said (though not by Stevie Davies) that Vaughan, and Wordsworth after him, failed to look closely at nature. One might of course retort that the business of such poets is not to number the streaks of the tulip but 'to see into the life of things'. All the same, to stretch out my hand to one of those stones is now to sense with great vividness the genesis of Vaughan's poetry in close attention to the real.

It seems there may be a radical revaluation of Vaughan in progress. I notice that for many contemporary writers he is, as one recently wrote to me 'the poet closest to my heart'. This new biography should open Vaughan to many more readers, and it seems significant that Professor Wynn Thomas of Swansea has chosen Vaughan as the subject of his forthcoming inaugural lecture (to be printed in The Swansea Review). Being equally familiar with Welsh and English literature, Professor Thomas is surely ideally placed to make Vaughan accessible to a Welsh readership in terms of his participation in deep ambivalences embedded in the political, religious and linguistic history of this country.
  Anne Cluysenaar
 

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This entire presentation Copyright © Stevie Davies