December 07, 2005

V is for Henry Vaughan

And now for something completely different, at least from yesterday's jingles and ditties.

is for Henry Vaughan.

I first came across Henry Vaughan in Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light, in which he is one of Vicky Austin's grandfather's favorite poets; there is no better way to appreciate an artist than to hear about him from someone who loves him, whether real or fictional. Born into the time of religious upheaval, of Oliver Cromwell and George Fox and the Pilgrims, Cromwell and the Puritans, Vaughan could see nothing, whether a waterfall or a Christmas celebration, but as either a symbol of Christ or a reproach to Him:

from The Waterfall: O useful element and clear ! My sacred wash and cleanser here ; My first consigner unto those Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes ! What sublime truths and wholesome themes Lodge in thy mystical, deep streams ! Such as dull man can never find, Unless that Spirit lead his mind, Which first upon thy face did move And hatch'd all with His quick'ning love. As this loud brook's incessant fall In streaming rings restagnates all, Which reach by course the bank, and then Are no more seen : just so pass men. O my invisible estate, My glorious liberty, still late ! Thou art the channel my soul seeks, Not this with cataracts and creeks.

The True Christmas

SO, stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing ;
And mortifies the earth, and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flow'rs, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts' warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show,
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate,
But to the manger's mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth ;
And all man's greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.

Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherds' watchfulness,
Whom light and hymns from Heav'n did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in ;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.

Still, though I share little of his theology, the beauty of Vaughan's images stays with me. The poem from which L'Engle took her book's title is both one of his best-known nad one of his most beautiful:

The World

I SAW Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright ;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driv'n by the spheres 5
Like a vast shadow mov'd ; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain ;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights, 10
Wit's sour delights ;
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure,
All scatter'd lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow'r. 15

The darksome statesman, hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog, mov'd there so slow,
He did nor stay, nor go ;
Condemning thoughts—like sad eclipses—scowl
Upon his soul, 20
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digg'd the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work'd under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey ; but one did see 25
That policy :
Churches and altars fed him ; perjuries
Were gnats and flies ;
It rain'd about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free. 30

The fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves. 30
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg'd each one his pelf ;*
The downright epicure plac'd heav'n in sense,
And scorn'd pretence ;
While others, slipp'd into a wide excess 35
Said little less ;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave ;
And poor, despisèd Truth sate counting by
Their victory. 40

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar'd up into the ring ;
But most would use no wing.
O fools—said I—thus to prefer dark night
Before true light ! 45
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way ;
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God ;
A way where you might tread the sun, and be 50
More bright than he !
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whisper'd thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for His bride.”

That last stanza confuses me a little, rather. I have no reason to believe that Vaughan was a closet Catholic (it's believed he went to Oxford, so he was at least nominally a Protestant, and certainly it was far safer to be one). On the other hand, I don't know what the Bridegroom's Bride could be other than the Church, by which I usually think of the Catholic Church - unless the Anglican Church was claiming to be the heir of St. Peter? Whichever Church he refers to, Vaughan seems to be saying here that Eternity is only for its elect. Not my preferred theology ... but what beauty of language in saying so.

Posted by dichroic at December 7, 2005 04:25 PM
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