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Herbert the Hermetist: Vaughan's Reading of The Temple by Jonathan Nauman Like their counterparts in the nineteenth century, twentiethcentury critics with sympathies for Romanticism have placed great emphasis on the strangely specific and personal observations of nature which appear in Henry Vaughan's sacred poems. Joseph Summers considers Vaughan's demonstrative indication of "those faint beams in which this hill is drest" in "They are all gone into the world of light!" an anticipation of the Romantic movement;1 and E.C. Pettet speaks of how "a surprisingly close and convincing parallel can be drawn" between Vaughan's and Wordsworth's recourses to nature for poetic inspiration.2 F.E. Hutchinson and Alan Rudrum reinforce such observations by contending that Vaughan's view of nature differed considerablyfrom that of mainstreamseventeenth-centurythought — a mainstream which included his master George Herbert. "There was indeed [in Silex Scintillans] a new and closer discipleship of George Herbert, but Vaughan's best and most distinctive achievements will be on themes of his own choice and treated in his own way," says Hutchinson; and, quoting lines from Herbert's "Providence" about how "Man is the worlds high Priest" when the creation praises God, suggests that "Vaughan carries this thought farther than Herbert, for whom it was perhaps little more than a pious fancy. This 'obedience' of the creatures is for Vaughan almost a conscious adoration of the Creator."3 Rudrum, citing Vaughan's "Rules and Lessons" and "The Morning-Watch," distinguishes even more sharply between the two poets: We see that . . . Vaughan understands the "creatures" themselves to be praising God. Donne and Herbert had both considered this notion and rejected it in favor of the idea that it is man, as high-priest of the creation, who offers up praise to God on behalf of a universe which, being inarticulate, cannot offer its own praises. This acceptance of an animistic or vitalisticinterpretation of things is typical of Vaughan.4 26Jonathan Nauman Although any reader of Vaughan and Herbert is likely to admit that Vaughan poetically appropriates the natural world in a way very different from his master, such sharp differentiation between the two poets' attitudes in an area quite central to Vaughan's poetic vision ought to raise more critical questions than it generally has. Vaughan's exalted opinion of Herbert — the rhetoric he consistently uses whenever referring, either in verse or in prose, to the earlier poet — seems incompatible with any perception on his part of Herbert's endorsing a non-hermetic, Aristotelian description of the universe. Vaughan agreed with his brother's opinion that traditional, Aristotelian science unbiblically reduced the creation to inanimate matter; indeed, there is some evidence that he shared even his brother's tendency to polemicize against Aristotle. If Vaughan perceived as clearly as modern readers do that Herbert sided against him on the issue of God's mode of relating to the natural world, it would be worth asking how he was able to submit to Herbert reverently and without qualification in The Life ofPaulinus and the 1654 Preface to Silex Scintillant while simultaneously writing the emphatically partisan preface to his Hermetical Physick: If any will be offended with this Hermeticall Theorie, I shall but smile at his frettings, and pitty his ignorance. Those are bad Spirits, that have the light; and such are all malicious despisers of true knowledge, who out of meere envie, scribble and rail at all endeavors; but such as submit to, and Déifie their rigid superstition, and twice sodden Colworts. For my owne part, I honour the truth where ever I find it, whether in an old, or a new Booke, in Galen, or in Paracelsus; and Antiquity, (where I find it gray with errors) shall have as little reverence from me, as Novelisme. (p. 548)6 It would be tempting to evade this difficulty by assuming that Vaughan maintained separate allegiances in his scientific and religious opinions. However, certain dynamics of hermetical thinking — its tendency to distinguish itself from Aristotelian science as a more seamless union of religious and scientific truth, its tendency to attribute the deficiencies of non-hermetic thinking to religious error7 — make such a solution problematic. I would suggest...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 25-40
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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