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A Short Analysis of Henry Vaughan’s ‘The Retreat’

A summary of a classic Metaphysical poem

Henry Vaughan (1622-95) was a Welsh Metaphysical Poet, although his name is not quite so familiar as, say, Andrew Marvell, he who wrote ‘To His Coy Mistress‘. His poem ‘The Retreat’ (sometimes the original spelling, ‘The Retreate’, is preserved) is about the loss of heavenly innocence experienced during childhood, and a desire to regain this lost state of ‘angel infancy’. What follows is a brief summary and analysis of ‘The Retreat’, paying particular attention to Vaughan’s language and imagery.

The Retreat

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 aught
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;
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,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
O, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But, ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
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.

In summary, ‘The Retreat’ focuses on the double meaning of that word, ‘retreat’: both a place of refuge and the act of withdrawal. Childhood is viewed by Vaughan as a happy place, a world of innocence and bliss which the adult Vaughan has lost sight of. Vaughan talks of his mortal life as his ‘second race’, suggesting that our life on Earth follow on from a previous, heavenly existence which we enjoyed before our birth. In those early days of his life, Vaughan found it easy to fill his soul with ‘a white, celestial thought’: indeed, such heavenly thoughts were the only ones he was capable of having. Vaughan talks of Christ as his ‘first love’. Vaughan says that he longs to travel back to those childhood years when he felt closer to God – in this respect, ‘The Retreat’ anticipates a nineteenth-century Romantic poem like Thomas Hood’s ‘I Remember, I Remember’, especially its concluding lines (where Hood remarks that in adulthood he is farther off from heaven than when he was a boy).

Throughout ‘The Retreat’, Henry Vaughan refers to our (short) time on Earth, contrasting it with the eternity of heaven:

When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
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,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.

In rhyming ‘flower’ with ‘hour’, Vaughan reminds us that everything has its moment in the sun and then withers and dies, like a flower. Our childhood is but an hour; our lives scarcely longer. Yet the couplet that follows, crowned with ‘eternity’ as it is, reminds us that, for Vaughan at least, there is something much vaster in the world – or rather, Henry Vaughan The Retreatbeyond the world. Before he had grown a bit older and started sinning, Vaughan tells us, he felt the bright shoots of ‘everlastingness’. These ‘bright shoots’ are to be contrasted with the flower we encountered a few lines before: these shoots will not wither away and die.

Vaughan concludes ‘The Retreat’ by saying that, whereas many people prefer to think in terms of progress, looking forward to the future, he prefers to look back to this earlier time when he was in touch with heaven and glimpsed the eternity of the afterlife (and, indeed, what we might call the beforelife). Vaughan then ends by saying that, if he looks forward to anything, it is to returning to the dust of which he was constituted before his birth – a reference to the biblical image of man being made from dust, to which he is returned when he dies. (This is most familiar to us these days through the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.)

Henry Vaughan acknowledged the earlier devotional poet George Herbert (1593-1633) as an important influence on his own work, writing that Herbert’s ‘holy life and verse gained many pious Converts (of whom I am the least).’ Herbert and Vaughan are both associated with the Metaphysical Poets, who use extended metaphors to explore complex psychological, philosophical, and religious ideas. But there is also a delicate and careful deployment of language in ‘The Retreat’: look at how ‘fancy’ (line 5) softly picks up on ‘infancy’ from three lines earlier, suggesting the light and carefree time of fancy that is our infancy.

‘The Retreat’ is almost proto-Romantic, evoking Thomas Hood and William Wordsworth among others, in its nostalgic vision of childhood as a time of innocence, bliss, and spiritual wholeness. Henry Vaughan may have written about looking backwards in ‘The Retreat’, but as this analysis has endeavoured to show, in a curious way this poem sees him looking forward to, or anticipating, a future movement in English literature.

Continue to explore the world of seventeenth-century poetry with our short overview of Henry Vaughan’s life and work, these Andrew Marvell poems, and our analysis of Lovelace’s ‘The Scrutiny’.

Image: O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, Queensland, Australia (picture credit: thinboyfatter), via Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on October 21, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Jean Buckingham

    Children angelic? Childhood a place of Holy Innocence? His memory is faulty, and he obviously didn’t have children. Most of us spend most of our adult lives wrestling with the little devils, both as parents and grandparents and the only reason we stay sane and forgiving is because we can remember what we were like as children.

    On Fri, Oct 21, 2016 at 7:00 PM, Interesting Literature wrote:

    > interestingliterature posted: “A summary of a classic Metaphysical poem > Henry Vaughan (1622-95) was a Welsh Metaphysical Poet, although his name is > not quite so familiar as, say, Andrew Marvell. His poem ‘The Retreat’ > (sometimes the original spelling, ‘The Retreate’, is preserved) i” >

  2. I love this together with your analysis. A truly beautiful poem. Thank you.

  3. ‘Some men a forward motion love ‘ these are mainly the young , the old look back to what appear to be better days. Another all embracing analysis .

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