The Silurist. A review of On the Poems of Henry Vaughan: Characteristics and Intimations, by Edmund Blunden
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190 ] The Silurist A review of On the Poems of Henry Vaughan: Characteristics and Intimations, by Edmund Blunden London: R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1927. Pp. 64. The Dial, 83 (Sept 1927), 259-63 Mr. Edmund Blunden is very well known as the poet of certain parts of rural England. This little essay on Vaughan ought to interest everyone who likes Mr. Blunden’s poetry. For Mr. Blunden feels warm sympathy towards Vaughan, and makes the reader feel that Blunden and Vaughan really have muchincommon.TheevidenceisthatMr.BlundenhastranslatedVaughan’s Latin poems with remarkable success. He has succeeded so well that the result is more than a tour de force; it seems very like what the poems would have been if Vaughan had written them himself in English. This is in my opinion the best part of the book; and as the poems themselves are pretty and charming, they make the book worth reading. This is not, strictly speaking, a critical study. It is an “appreciation.” Never­ theless, it has some critical value; for Vaughan is in fact more like Blunden than like some images of himself that have been projected; and wherever Vaughan is like Blunden, there Mr. Blunden’s view of him is right. One of the aspects of Vaughan which Mr. Blunden’s study should correct , is that of Vaughan as mystic. There is apt to prevail a critical misconception about any poet who is also suspected of being a mystic. The question whether a poet is a mystic is not, for literary criticism, a question at all. The question is, how far are the poetry and the mysticism one thing? Poetry is mystical when it intends to convey, and succeeds in conveying, to the reader (at the same time that it is real poetry) the statement of a perfectly definite experience which we call the mystical experience. And if it is real poetry it will convey this experience in some degree to every reader who genuinely feels it as poetry. Instead of being obscure, it will be pellucid. I do not care to deny that good poetry can be at the same time a sort of cryptogram of a mysticism only visible to the initiate; only, in that case, the poetry and the mysticism will be two different things. Some readers have professed to discover in Vaughan the traces of an hermetic philosophy of profound depths. [ 191 The Silurist It may be there; if so, it belongs not to literature but to cryptography. The mystical element in Vaughan which belongs to his poetry is there for any one to see; it is “mysticism” only by a not uncommon extension of the term.1 Agenuinemysticalstatement istobefoundinthelastcantooftheParadiso; this is primarily great poetry.2 An equally genuine mysticism is expressed in the verses of St. John of the Cross;3 this is not a statement, but a riddling expression; it belongs to great mysticism, but not to great poetry. Vaughan is neither a great mystic nor a very great poet; but he has a peculiar kind of feeling which Mr. Blunden is qualified to appreciate. Vaughan is in some ways the most modern – that is to say, the most nineteenth-century – of the so-called metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. He has much more in common with the age to which Mr. Blunden belongsthanDonne,orCrashaw,orHerbert,orBenlowes.Apoemtowhich Mr. Blunden seems particularly attached is “The Retreat,” the poem of Vaughan which has become famous as the precursor of the Ode on Intima­ tions of Immortality of Wordsworth.4 The comparison is of course (it is a tradition of criticism, not an invention of Mr. Blunden’s) unfair to Vaughan and to Wordsworth also. The two poems have little in common; Word­ s­ worth’s Ode is a superb piece of verbiage, and Vaughan’s poem is a simple and sincere statement of feeling. But Mr. Blunden’s praise of this poem, and praise of this sort of poetry which is reminiscent of childhood and its imagined radiance, is significant of the weakness of both Vaughan and Blunden. Lamb’s dream in prose, “The Child Angel,” appears to have turned upon a reminiscence of Vaughan. . . . There is a general strange correspondence between the essay and the poem; yet not so strange, for what was Elia also by his own confession but a man in love with his childhood? [26]5 And so forth; but it does not occur to Mr. Blunden that this love of one’s ownchildhood,apassionwhichheappearstosharewithLambandVaughan, is anything but a...