restricted access Herbert as Bardd in the Imagination of Henry Vaughan
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Herbert as Bardd in the Imagination of Henry Vaughan

Sometime between the publication of Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646), when he (or his publisher George Badger) proudly proclaimed his status as a presumably English gentleman, and that of the first part of Silex Scintillans (1650), Henry Vaughan turned away from his previous investment in London life and literary culture and instead embraced his Welsh identity and a life centered in and around his native Newton by Usk. While the overall direction of this change is undisputed, his choice of "Silurist" as a verbal emblem for his Welsh pride has been considered puzzling when juxtaposed with his biographical circumstances at the time of its coinage. In one of the most probing explorations of this appellation to-date, Roland Mathias elaborates the connection between Vaughan's "Silurist" and the Celtic tribe the Silures, who after settling in South Wales, "distinguished themselves in their resistance to the Romans," furnished the bowmen largely responsible for the "victory at Crécy and Poitiers," and figured prominently at the battle of Agincourt.1 By the seventeenth century, Mathias explains, the "Silurian tradition had become that of 'the King's Welsh subjects,' the object of their loyalty often personalized in the Prince of Wales." It is possible Vaughan intended the label "Silurist" to cement a connection between this martial tradition and his own service in the Royalist troop of Sir Herbert Price during the first Civil War. But if so, the timing for such a symbolic declaration would have been odd. By the time "Silurist" appeared in print, the Royalists had been defeated roundly and embarrassingly. Moreover, Vaughan's service appears to have been hardly long or distinguished, "certainly nothing which he could reasonably have felt would gild the epic Silurian tradition of stubbornness in battle."2 Why, then, claim this version of Welsh heritage?

Vaughan's so-called religious conversion is similarly puzzling if scrutinized closely. One of the critical commonplaces about Vaughan has been that his change in literary direction - his turn from the [End Page 102] secular mode of the Cavaliers to religious meditative verse, along with his interest in prose devotions - is symptomatic of a religious conversion and a newfound religious fervor. In the words of F.E. Hutchinson, who devotes an entire chapter of his landmark biography to this subject, the "author of Silex Scintillans was a changed man, and this change is of the highest consideration of him as a poet."3 Two biographical considerations complicate this thesis, however. First, if we take the initial publication of Silex Scintillans as the primary evidence for a religious conversion, why did Vaughan allow for Olor Iscanus to be printed the following year and with "Silurist" as Vaughan's identifier? Secondly, the conversion thesis assumes Vaughan lacked strong religious convictions before his participation in the Civil War and prior to the death of his younger brother William in July 1648. But as Claude J. Summers has persuasively argued, surely one of the causes of Vaughan's melancholy during the 1640s was the systematic, Parliamentary dismantling of the Established Church.4 Would the presence of what Summers calls "Anglican survivalism" have been so strong in Silex Scintillans if Vaughan had not felt the loss of the Anglican liturgy and church practices so strongly?

In the face of these and like inconsistencies, Jonathan F.S. Post contends that Vaughan's "conversion" was not religious per se but poetic, a product of his deep, almost hypnotized immersion in the example of Herbert.5 According to Post, Vaughan appears to have followed wholeheartedly Ben Jonson's dictum that the poet-in-training, or in this case, the poet retraining in the face of the catastrophic dismantling of the Established Church by victorious Puritans, should select as a model "one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him, till he grow a very Hee: or, so like him, as the Copie may be mistaken for the Principall."6 Throughout his literary career to the 1650s, Vaughan made a habit of becoming a disciple of individual poetic predecessors - for instance, William Habington during the composition of his 1646 Poems. But all...