The interesting life of Henry Vaughan
Henry Vaughan is associated with the seventeenth-century Metaphysical Poets, but his name is not as famous or familiar as, say, Andrew Marvell or John Donne. In this post we offer a very short biography of Henry Vaughan, providing a brief introduction to his life and work – focusing on the most interesting aspects of Vaughan’s life.
Henry Vaughan was, like his great mentor George Herbert, Welsh in origin. Born in Newton-upon-Usk in 1621, Vaughan was one of twins (his brother Thomas became an alchemist and would later die from the effects of mercury poisoning in 1666). Like many Welsh scholars Henry appears to have gone up to study at Jesus College, Oxford – though details of his education, and of his life in general, are sketchy. His later studies in London (in law) were interrupted by the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, and he later trained and worked not in law but medicine.
Vaughan’s best-known volume of poems is the 1650 collection Silex Scintillans (‘Sparks from the Flint’), which was republished in an enlarged edition five years later. The book represents a break away from Vaughan’s earlier, secular work and the maturing of his poetic voice. He appears to have suffered some unspecified illness around this time, which galvanised him into reforming himself from a life of dissoluteness into one of religious observance. He became an important devotional poet of the seventeenth century, following the lead of George Herbert (1593-1633); Vaughan wrote of Herbert that his ‘holy life and verse gained many pious Converts (of whom I am the least).’
In many ways, though, Vaughan also curiously prefigures and foreshadows the Romantic poets who wrote over a century after his death: although his style and mode are firmly rooted in seventeenth-century devotional and Metaphysical poetry, his themes often anticipate Wordsworthian notions of the blissful paradise of childhood innocence and the role of natural objects in helping us to appreciate the numinous and spiritual. One of Vaughan’s most famous and widely studied poems, ‘The Retreat’, offers a good sense of the proto-Romantic elements to his work.
Henry Vaughan continued to write poetry after the high point of Silex Scintillans in the early 1650s, but much of his finest poetry – the poems that have endured – is from that volume. He died in 1695.
We hope you found this very short biography of Henry Vaughan helpful. If you’d like to learn more about Vaughan’s life, we recommend this website.
Image: The title page of Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, 1650; Wikimedia Commons.