Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan, the major Welsh poet of the Commonwealth period, has been among the writers benefiting most from the twentieth-century revival of interest in the poetry of John Donne and his followers. Vaughan’s early poems, notably those published in the Poems of 1646 and Olor Iscanus of 1651, place him among the “Sons of Ben,” in the company of other imitators of Ben Jonson, such as the Cavalier poets Sir William Davenant and Thomas Carew. His poetry from the late 1640s and 1650s, however, published in the two editions of Silex Scintillans (1650, 1655), makes clear his extensive knowledge of the poetry of Donne and, especially, of George Herbert.

Even though Vaughan would publish a final collection of poems with the title Thalia Rediviva in 1678, his reputation rests primarily on the achievement of Silex Scintillans. In the preface to the 1655 edition Vaughan described Herbert as a “blessed man … whose holy life and verse gained many pious Converts (of whom I am the least).” Vaughan’s transition from the influence of the Jacobean neoclassical poets to the Metaphysicals was one manifestation of his reaction to the English Civil War. During the time the Church of England was outlawed and radical Protestantism was in ascendancy, Vaughan kept faith with Herbert’s church through his poetic response to Herbert’s Temple (1633).

Recent attention to Vaughan’s poetic achievement is a new phenomenon. Even though he published many translations and four volumes of poetry during his lifetime, Vaughan seems to have attracted only a limited readership. The second edition of his major work, Silex Scintillans, included unsold pages of the first edition. When, in 1673, his cousin John Aubrey informed him that he had asked Anthony Wood to include information about Vaughan and his brother Thomas in a volume commemorating Oxford poets (later published as Athenæ Oxonienses, 1691, 1692) his response was enthusiastic. He thanked Aubrey in a 15 June letter for remembering “such low & forgotten things, as my brother and my selfe.” In a letter to Aubrey dated 28 June, Vaughan confessed, “I never was of such a magnitude as could invite you to take notice of me, & therfore I must owe all these favours to the generous measures of yor free & excellent spirit.”

In spite of Aubrey’s kindness and Wood’s resulting account of Vaughan, neglect of the Welsh poet would continue. Wood expanded his treatment of the Vaughans in the second edition of Athenæ Oxonienses (1721) to give Henry his own section distinct from the account of his brother, but Vaughan’s work was ignored almost completely in the eighteenth century. Such attention as Vaughan was to receive early in the nineteenth century was hardly favorable: he was described in Thomas Campbell’s Specimens of the British Poets (1819) as “one of the harshest even of the inferior order of conceit,” worthy of notice only because of “some few scattered thoughts that meet our eye amidst his harsh pages like wild flowers on a barren heath.”

Renewed appreciation of Vaughan came only at midcentury in the context of the Oxford Movement and the Anglo-Catholic revival of interest in the Caroline divines. Seeking a usable past for present-day experience of renewed spiritual devotion, Edward Farr included seven of Vaughan’s poems in his anthology Gems of Sacred Poetry (1841). Awareness of Vaughan spurred by Farr’s notice soon led to H. F. Lyte’s edition of Silex Scintillans in 1847, the first since Vaughan’s death. Yet wide appreciation of Vaughan as a poet was still to come.

Vaughan’s Complete Works first appeared in Alexander B. Grosart’s edition (1871), to be superseded by L. C. Martin’s edition, which first appeared in 1914. Martin’s 1957 revision of this edition remains the standard text. Together with F. E. Hutchinson’s biography (1947) it constitutes the foundation of all more recent studies. Letters Vaughan wrote Aubrey and Wood supplying information for publication in Athenæ Oxonienses that are reprinted in Martin’s edition remain the basic source for most of the specific information known about Vaughan’s life and career.

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