restricted access Mystic and Politician as Poet: Vaughan, Traherne, Marvell, Milton
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[ 95 Mystic and Politician as Poet: Vaughan, Traherne, Marvell, Milton1 The Listener, 3 (2 Apr 1930) 590-91 [I am sorry that it is impossible to read you any of Crashaw’s poems in full. But, as I said, the best of them are too long; my talk would become simply a poetry reading. So I will suggest that you read his “Hymn to St. Theresa” (137 inGrierson);andthentrytogetholdofatranslationoftheautobiographyof that amazing woman; and then read the poem again.2 And finally, on page 193 read a poem “On the Death of Mr. Crashaw,” written by a young man who came up to Peterhouse College while Crashaw was still there; one who alsofollowedtheCourtintoexile,andofwhomweshallhearmore:Abraham Cowley. Cowley wrote many fine lines; he was not a great poet; but no one could desire a finer epitaph than the lines on Crashaw beginning: Poet and Saint! To thee alone are given The two most sacred names of earth and heaven.]3 Henry Vaughan is in some ways the most original and difficult of all the followers of Donne. Younger than any of the men I have yet mentioned, he was still old enough to have served in the King’s army during the Civil Wars. He was a Welsh country gentleman of good family, but no courtier. His biography is a little vague, but he seems to have been distinguished by a passion for learned and curious studies, and by a passionate devotion to his native valleys. In fact, the odd title which he gave himself, “The Silurist,” indicates a desire to identify himself as closely as possible with his native part of Wales.4 [I have said that he is in some ways the most original and difficult of all the disciples of Donne. One reason is that] His sensibility seems at times much nearer to that of the [nineteenth and] twentieth centur[ies]; he has a curious brooding love of nature which makes us think of Wordsworth, and a rather closer observation of wild nature. Donne is a poet of the town; Herbert is a poet of the vicarage; Crashaw is a poet of Rome; but Vaughan, with all his learning and culture, is a poet of the rugged countryside. The other peculiarity of Vaughan is that he comes much nearer than any of these men to being what we may call a mystic. Much of his poetry is Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 96 ] religious, but is not of the Church; and here and there we seem to catch flashes of an original and unique vision; of personal mystical experience – perhaps not of the highest order, but still authentic. And on this side he suggests very faintly, William Blake; but without any of Blake’s arrogant theorising.5 [Mr. Edmund Blunden, in a little book on Vaughan published two or three years ago by Cobden-Sanderson, dwells I think too much on the nature-loving side of Vaughan, and not enough either on his relation to the school of Donne or on his peculiar religious sensibility. But I recommend the book, and more particularly for the accomplishment with which Mr. Blunden has there translated Vaughan’s Latin poems into English.]6 Let us look at once at the poem which has perhaps done the most to distort our view of Vaughan into that of a mere precursor of Wordsworth, “The Retreat” (page 145):7 * [(I will read only the first half of it).] Happy those early days! when I Shined in my Angel-infancy. Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race, Or taught my soul to fancy ought But a white, celestial thought, When yet I had not walked above A mile, or two, from my first love, And looking back (at that short space) Could see a glimpse of His bright face; When on some gilded cloud, or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour, And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity . . . This does suggest, of course, both Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” and his primrose by the river’s brim, his daffodils, etc.8 But I think it represents something both different and more specific. It is not a general sense of what [Professor] Whitehead would call “pattern” in the life of nature, nor a love of nature for its own sake: I think it is a reference to some particular experience or experiences at some early period; just as I think that very different work, the “New Life...


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