Henry Vaughan – 5 Poems

Penguin RenaissanceHere are a few pieces from seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan. Going through The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, the usual names stuck out, but Vaughan seemed to run past most of them.

Trying to place him, he strikes me very nearly as a forerunner of William Blake in the visionary quality of his unexpected rhythms. I’ve seen him placed a distance second behind folks like George Herbert, but Vaughan’s lines, seemingly on the verge of being unwieldy, strike me for that risk as being more powerful, and personal.I wonder if anyone else will feel the same?


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
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,
    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.

The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
    He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
    Upon his soul,
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
    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.

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;
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,
    Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
    Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
    Their victory.

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,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
    Because it shews 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
    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.”


Eternal God! Maker of all
That have lived here since the man’s fall:
The Rock of Ages! in whose shade
They live unseen, when here they fade;

Thou knew’st this paper when it was
Mere seed, and after that but grass;
Before ‘twas dressed or spun, and when
Made linen, who did wear it then:
What were their lives, their thoughts, and deeds,
Whether good corn or fruitless weeds.

Thou knew’st this tree when a green shade
Covered it, since a cover made,
And where it flourished, grew, and spread,
As if it never should be dead.

Thou knew’st this harmless beast when he
Did live and feed by Thy decree
On each green thing; then slept – well fed –
Clothed with this skin which now lies spread
A covering o’er this aged book;
Which makes me wisely weep, and look
On my own dust; mere dust it is,
But not so dry and clean as this.
Thou knew’st and saw’st them all, and though
Now scattered thus, dost know them so.

O knowing, glorious Spirit! when
Thou shalt restore trees, beasts, and men,
When Thou shalt make all new again,
Destroying only death and pain,
Give him amongst Thy works a place
Who in them loved and sought Thy face!


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.


With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
Here flowing fall,
And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
The common pass
Where, clear as glass,
All must descend
Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

Dear stream! dear bank, where often I
Have sate and pleas’d my pensive eye,
Why, since each drop of thy quick store
Runs thither whence it flow’d before,
Should poor souls fear a shade or night,
Who came, sure, from a sea of light?
Or since those drops are all sent back
So sure to thee, that none doth lack,
Why should frail flesh doubt any more
That what God takes, he’ll not restore?

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.


Father of lights! what sunny seed,
What glance of day hast Thou confined
Into this bird? To all the breed
This busy ray Thou hast assigned;
    Their magnetism works all night,
    And dreams of paradise and light.

Their eyes watch for the morning hue;
Their little grain, expelling night,
So shines and sings as if it knew
The path unto the house of light.
    It seems their candle, howe’er done,
    Was tinned and lighted at the sun.

If such a tincture, such a touch,
So firm a longing can empower,
Shall Thy own image think it much
To watch for Thy appearing hour?
    If a mere blast so fill the sail,
    Shall not the breath of God prevail?

O Thou immortal Light and Heat!
Whose hand so shines through all this frame
That, by the beauty of the seat,
We plainly see who made the same,
    Seeing Thy seed abides in me,
    Dwell Thou in it, and I in Thee!

To sleep without Thee is to die;
Yea, ‘tis a death partakes of hell:
For where Thou dost not close the eye,
It never opens, I can tell.
    In such a dark Egyptian border,
    The shades of death dwell, and disorder.

If joys, and hopes, and earnest throes,
And hearts whose pulse beats still for light
Are given to birds, who but Thee knows
A love-sick soul’s exalted flight?
    Can souls be tracked by any eye
    But His who gave them wings to fly?

Only this veil which Thou hast broke,
And must be broken yet in me,
This veil, I say, is all the cloak
And cloud which shadows Thee from me.
    This veil Thy full-eyed love denies,
    And only gleams and fractions spies.

O take it off! make no delay;
But brush me with Thy light that I
May shine unto a perfect day,
And warm me at Thy glorious eye!
    O take it off, or till it flee,
    Though with no lily, stay with me!