"The Retreat": A Poem by Henry Vaughan
When John Donne and George Herbert died, Henry Vaughan (1621-95) was only ten and twelve years old respectively. Nevertheless, he still counts as a “metaphysical” poet and he was proud to regard himself as a disciple of George Herbert. Indeed, some of his poems took devotion almost to the point of plagiarism. Vaughan’s poems are rarely as good as those of Donne or Herbert, mainly because his voice is less direct or convincing, but on occasion he could produce something memorable that has a touch of originality and quality.
“The Retreat” is one such poem, and possibly his best. Whereas many of his poems tend to be over-long, this one seems to be just the right length for its purpose. It even hints at looking forward to the romanticism of Wordsworth. It was included in Vaughan’s collection of religious poems entitled “Silex Scintillans”(1650) composed after his religious conversion in 1648. Prior to this date he had written mainly secular poems whereas afterwards he turned to contemplating the mysteries of religion.
“The Retreat” is 32 lines long, split into two parts (“stanza” does not seem appropriate here). The eight-syllable lines (“iambic tetrameters”, to be technical) form rhyming couplets.
The idea behind the poem is the theological concept that the human soul existed before birth in a state of grace and that life on Earth is merely an interval before it can return whence it came. This is captured by the opening couplet:
Happy those early days, when I
Shined in my angel-infancy!
The pure soul has been encased in a human form that is uncorrupted until the temptations of the world sully it with sin. This is no doubt allied with the view of Heaven envisaged by medieval artists who peopled their scenes with cherubs modelled on babies. To the viewer, seeing such scenes on church altarpieces, it was a small step from angelic babies to newly born ones.
Vaughan continues the theme of childhood innocence in the next four lines:
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white celestial thought;
He then develops the theme by supposing that a child’s fascination with the beauties of the natural world is because he is looking back at the Heaven (and God) he has not long left behind:
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;
It is to be noted that it is the soul that is doing the gazing, rather than the body, as though the child is only gradually corrupted from being pure soul into sinful body. There are also suggestions here of Platonic thought, in that the “gilded cloud or flower” is regarded as being “a shadow of eternity” in a similar way to Plato’s cave dwellers whose view of reality is only hinted at by the shadows that they can see projected on to the cave wall.
The next lines make it clear that the adult human is the cause of his own corruption:
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense
Vaughan was convinced that a veil or curtain separated man from God and that the curtain became less easy to penetrate as one became increasingly corrupted by the world, especially if one’s own giving in to temptation was the cause of that corruption. For the child, the veil is transparent, but for the corrupted adult it is thick and solid.
In the second part of the poem Vaughan expresses a longing to “travel back / And tread again that ancient track”. He regrets that “my soul with too much stay / Is drunk, and staggers in the way.”
In the final lines he expresses his hope to achieve a state of grace, but sees this as going backwards rather than forwards:
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn
In that state I came, return.
The title of the poem thus becomes clear, in that Vaughan expresses a mystical concept in which earthly life is some sort of aberration, or mistake, and that a soul that has the misfortune to be born as a human being has a duty to stay incorrupt so that it can return whence it came. As the last line makes clear, this will only be possible “in that state I came”.
To a modern reader, this all seems to be the wrong way round. Surely life is something to be enjoyed and is a progression of experiences, each building on the last? For Vaughan, this is the “forward motion”, but it is not the direction that the soul should take it if it going to undo the mistake of birth.
“The Retreat” is therefore a poem that stops one in one’s tracks, whatever religious views one might hold, if any. One does not need to accept the concepts that Vaughan is propounding to appreciate the skill with which he puts them forward. It is a well-crafted poem that uses simple language to express profound thoughts in an understandable way.