“Some syllables are swords.” — Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan

”I’ve always been much influenced by the 17th-century metaphysical poets like Donne, and especially Henry Vaughan.” — Philip K. Dick

It’s Henry Vaughan’s birthday today.

I was just thinking the other day about how I encountered certain famous writers in my childhood through hearing them mentioned in favorite childhood books. It’s a wonderful way to learn and grow, almost by osmosis.

For example:


Jane Langton’s Boyhood of Grace Jones, a big favorite of mine as a kid. It’s the story of a tomboy named Grace Jones in the year 1939, and how she becomes obsessed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge after she has to read “Kubla Khan” in English class. I was 10, 11 when I first read The Boyhood of Grace Jones, and Langton includes the texts of both Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner at the end of the book. I devoured it all. I devoured it because Grace’s excitement was catching.

In Anne of Green Gables Lucy Maud Montgomery introduced me to Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott. I was that kind of reader. Oh, Anne Shirley is obsessed with “Lady of the Lake”? Well, then, I must read it so I can know what is happening in this chapter.

I read the entirety of Pilgrim’s Progress when I was 11 years old because the March sisters were all so into it in Little Women. I tried to see what they saw in it, I tried to get its power, and I admit I failed. However: I read every word. I’m still that way. A brief mention of something in one book will then lead me on a wild goose-chase through footnotes and bibiliographies to try to find out more. I love those childhood books of mine that introduced me to new things.

Back in the day, 10, 15 years ago? – I read a couple of snotty comments/blog posts about the re-issue of Wuthering Heights with a Twilight-inspired cover, and the tagline: “Bella and Edward’s favorite book”. If you’ve read those books, then you know that Wuthering Heights does not just come up in passing. It is an ongoing thematic element, referenced often – this is what happens when you are a receptive reader of a certain age. You read a “classic” book but you are too young to give it the proper reverence and distance and so it becomes a living breathing text you enter into, and see yourself in. So I think the snottiness about the Twilight cover of Wuthering Heights is ridiculous and way out of touch. If kids who read Twilight rush out to pick up Wuthering Heights (which they did, by the way: Wuthering Heights became a modern-day bestseller because of those tweens), then I think it’s awesome. I was doing the same thing back when I was that age. I read a lot of great classics very early, and on my own, due to their being referenced in one of my books that I loved.

So what does all of this have to do with Henry Vaughan, devotional poet of the 17th century? His most famous poem starts

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light …

lines which are the title of one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books, an entry in the “Austin” series: A Ring of Endless Light, a book I have written about and mentioned a lot here on my site.

The verse from Henry Vaughan is very important to L’Engle’s book and to Vicky Austin, the main character. Her grandfather is a pastor, and he is dying, and he recites it to her one night when she is troubled. L’Engle weaves Henry Vaughan’s beautiful verse throughout the book. I read Ring of Endless Light when I was 15 or 16 – Vicky Austin’s age – and so this was my introduction to Henry Vaughan. He wasn’t part of the high school curriculum, not that I remember. There was no other way I would have found out about him. He was in the big Norton Anthology we had at home – this poem, too, no less – so when I saw that, I got excited because now I felt connected to him, because his work had been so personalized for me by L’Engle. It didn’t feel distant at all, like it was written by some old dude who lived in the olden days. It showed me that stuff written no matter WHEN on the timeline could still LIVE if I read carefully, absorbed it, and thought deeply about it. Vicky Austin was a 16-year-old girl and the poem had huge relevance in her life. L’Engle presented the poem in such a way the verse cracked open for me (not that the poem is a difficult one, the language is pretty simple, but you know how it is when you’re a teenager. It’s hard to be interested in anything not directly relevant to you and your life. It took me years to appreciate some of the books I had been forced to read in high school, and I am (obviously) a voracious reader.

But there were moments when an author I loved showed me another author – and it happened to be at a time in my life when a lot of things were new, when I didn’t have context yet, when my brain was still porous and open – and so I will always know who Henry Vaughan is. Madeleine L’Engle introduced me to him.

Henry Vaughan was Welsh. His main influence was George Herbert (their names are often linked). Vaughan was born in 1622, and died in 1695, and so he saw a lot of upheaval. His brother was into mysticism and alchemy. He started out by studying law, but then ended up a doctor. His poetry was not particularly well-known in his lifetime. People have been arguing about him ever since. Was he a George Herbert CLONE? I loved to find out, in my research, that Philip K. Dick counted Henry Vaughan as an influence on his writing. Fascinating! Vaughan had a conversion experience, and looked upon all he had written before said experience with contempt. He had the zeal of the late convert.

One of the things I get from Vaughan’s work is he is not connected to the earth at all. He is detached from the body, entirely. Henry Vaughan is 100% ethereal.

I very much was drawn to Vaughan’s work as a young teenager. I was devout myself. I loved astronomy, I loved going to church, and since I wasn’t raised in some wacko fundamentalist house with suspicion towards science, these two things dovetailed. It was ephemeral and magical, my beliefs, a sense of the vastness of the universe, and what this might reveal about God’s grace … Vaughan put it into words for me.

So. Thanks, Madeleine L’Engle!

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.
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 scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but One did see
That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat 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 hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
And scorned pretence;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despisèd Truth sat counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring;
But most would use no wing.
‘Oh, fools,’ said I, ‘thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leaps 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 whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
But for his Bride


Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets:

The most rapt English devotional poet, the most spiritually attentive, he lived in a spectrum between the pure white of infancy and a recovered whiteness of eternity.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

One can choose 1587 as an arbitrary date to begin the richest eighty years of poetry in English. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine was then first performed, perhaps with Shakespeare in the audience, though we do not know when the greatest of poets first arrived in London: 1589 seems to me rather too late, even as an outward limit. The first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene were published in 1590. In the early 1590s, Donne wrote many of the Songs and Sonnets, to be published only posthumously. By 1595, at the latest, Shakespeare was at his first full greatness, joined by Jonson at his strongest in Volpone (1606). The Tribe of Ben–disciples of the lyric and epigrammatic Jonson–included Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and Richard Lovelace. Andrew Marvell, a poetic party of one, wrote his lyrics by the 1650s, coming after the posthumous publication of George Herbert’s poetry in 1633. Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan published by the 1650s. Milton’s Comus was composed in 1634; Paradise Lost, dictated by the blind poet, was finished by 1665, seventy-eight years after Marlowe first shattered his London audiences.

Michael Schmidt:

Marvell is the poet of green, a “green thought in a green shade,” his eye on a fruitful garden; Vaughan is the poet of white in its implications of moral and spiritual purity, skyscape, cloudscape: “a white, Celestial thought,” the white light of stars, or in his translation of Boethius’s “that first white age.”

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

Henry Vaughan, who studied both law and medicine, began his poetic career with a 1646 volume that was indebted to Ben Jonson. In 1648, the poet experienced a religious conversion, though he long had been both Royalist and Anglican. All his notable poetry was written from 1648 to 1655, totally under the acknowledged influence of George Herbert, in the two volumes called Silex Scintillans (The Sparkling Flint).

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language:

After the incomparable George Herbert, and John Donne’s transcendental poems of faith, Henry Vaughan seems to me a devotional poet unmatched in the seventeenth century.

Michael Schmidt:

The dramatic openings and developments, whether simple allegory, allegorical journey or emblem, relate it to and distinguish it from other Metaphysical work. His revelation is certain. At times he experiences a triumphant sense of election, demanding no proof beyond his own…

Later in life he suffered litigation within the family and squabbles over property. The claims of a secular world clouded the spiritual sky. It was not to be a quiet old age. When he died in 1695, he had written no verse of moment for forty years. His interesting if derivative prose book, The Mount of Olives, dates from 1652. His memorable prose and verse belong, at most, to a decade in a life of seventy-odd years. Even that work, by an obscure Welsh doctor buried near the river Usk, was forgotten until the nineteenth century. First for his piety and then for his poetry, he was taken off the shelf and reedited. Since then his reputation has grown…

Vaughan died on the brink of the eighteenth century, the very last voice contained entirely within what many regard as the great century of English poetry, the crucial century of English history, in which the old order was finally violated, and the Restoration, rather than reestablishing continuities, produced a new dawn.

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2 Responses to “Some syllables are swords.” — Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan

  1. Jenna says:

    I love discovering new writers and poets through your blog Sheila! I love your passion! I must admit though that as a teenager, and even now I am a bit of a literature snob, but I have recognized that I have a problem and I try to suppress it!

    The paragraph about Twilight & Wuthering Heights reminded me of a comment that my dad made in the weeks before he passed away, and which I never got a chance to follow up on and will now literally haunt me for the rest of my life. We were talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, and he said it was just an updated Tess of the d’Ubervilles. I haven’t read Fifty Shades, but I LOVED Tess when I was growing up! I have a copy of Fifty Shades because I was planning on reading it to try and figure out this mystery, but I didn’t make it past the first paragraph! Maybe one day.

    I do love seeing the connections between different creative works, and then following up on those threads!

  2. nighthawk bastard says:

    I discovered the ridiculous grotesque Gothic Orientalist nightmare that is William Beckford’s Vathek when I was 14, because it was read and talked over by the characters of Cassandra Clare’s silly and delightful steampunk YA trilogy. Now, at 20, I’m writing my final piece of uni coursework on Vathek. I love it when stuff like that happens.

    And Lucy Maud has introduced me to so many authors, too!

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