- Born: April 17, 1621, Brecknockshire, Wales
- Died: April 23, 1695 (aged 74), Brecknockshire, Wales
- Notable Works: Silex Scintillans
Henry Vaughan (17 April 1621 — 23 April 1695) was a Welsh metaphysical poet, author, translator and physician. He is best known for his poem Silex Scintillans which was published in 1650, with a second part in 1655.
Vaughan began writing secular poetry, but converted to more religious themes later on in his career. He was heavily influenced by the religious poet George Herbert, and it is his religious poetry that remains critically acclaimed.
Vaughan lived most of his life in Wales, which acted as another source of inspiration for his writings. He married twice and had four children, before his death in 1695 at the age of 74.
Henry Vaughan – Early Life
Henry Vaughan was born on 17th April, 1621, in at Newton by Usk in the parish of Llansantffraed (St. Bridget’s), Brecknockshire. Vaughan was the eldest child of Thomas Vaughan (c. 1586–1658) of Tretower, and Denise Jenkin (born c. 1593), the only daughter and heir of David and Gwenllian Morgan of Llansantffraed. Vaughan had a younger twin brother called Thomas Vaughan, who became a philosopher and alchemist.
Seven years after Vaughan’s brith, in 1628, a third son, William, was born. William died in 1648, an event that may have contributed to Vaughan’s shift from secular to religious topics in his poetry. Henry and his twin grew up on a small estate in the parish of Llanssantffread, Brecknockshire, and it is likely that Vaughan grew up bilingual, in English and Welsh.
Vaughan’s paternal and maternal families were powerful — one was Catholic and one was Protestant. His paternal grandfather, William, owned Tretower Court. Despite this, there is evidence that Vaughan’s father and mother struggled financially and the home that Vaughan grew up in was small.
Vaughan and his brother were both taught for six years as children by the Reverend Matthew Herbert. Matthew Herbert may have reinforced a devotion to church and monarchy that the boys would have learned at home.
Following this, records are a little unclear as to Vaughan’s further education. Records show that Thomas Vaughan, Jr., was admitted to Jesus College, Oxford, on 4 May 1638, and it is thought that Henry went up at the same time. However, recent research in the Jesus College archives suggests that Henry did not enter Jesus College before 1641, unless he did so in 1639 without matriculating or paying an admission fee, and left before the record in the surviving buttery books resumes in December of that year.
It has been suggested that Henry went to Oxford later, after Thomas, on the basis of a comparison of the poems each wrote for the 1651 edition of the Comedies, Tragi-Comedies, with Other Poems of William Cartwright, who had died in 1643. These showed that Thomas had clearly attended Cartwright’s lectures.
Vaughan was recalled home to serve as a secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, a chief justice on the Brecknockshire circuit and staunch royalist as the Civil War developed is thought to have served briefly in the Royalist army. Upon his return to London, he began to practise medicine.
Marriage and Children
By 1646, Vaughan had married Catherine Wise. Together, the couple had a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Lucy, Frances, and Catherine. His courtship with his first wife is reflected in “Upon the Priory Grove”, in his first volume of poetry, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646). After his first wife’s death, he married her sister, Elizabeth, probably in 1655.
To begin with, Vaughan wrote secular poetry and was inspired by the Welsh mountains of his home in what is now part of the Brecon Beacons National Park and the River Usk valley, where he spent most of his early and professional life. He chose the descriptive name “Silurist”, derived from his homage to the Silures, a Celtic tribe of pre-Roman south Wales that strongly resisted the Romans.
Vaughan and his first wife Catherine had chosen life in the country by 1647, and this is the setting for his poem Olor Iscanus (The Swan of Usk). However, it was not published until 1651, over three years after it was written, which presumably reflects some crisis in Vaughan’s life. During those years, Vaughan’s grandfather William Vaughan died and he was evicted from his living in Llansantffraed.
Olor Iscanus explores the effect that the war had on Vaughan and his community in Wales, despite the fact that during the Civil War there was never a major battle fought there. Olor Iscanus directly represents a specific period in Vaughan’s life, which emphasises other secular writers and provides allusions to debt and happy living.
Conversion From Secular Poetry
Between Vaughan’s earlier poetry and his most famous work, Silex Scintillans, there was a shift for Vaughan. He shifted from secular poetry to more religious themes and this has often been deemed a conversion. This conversion is thought to have happened in period shortly preceding the publication of the first volume of Silex Scintillans (1650), as indicated by explicit statements in the preface to the second volume (1655).
It is thought that perhaps Vaughan suffered a prolonged sickness that inflicted much pain and believed he had been spared to make amends and start a new course not only in his life but in the literature he would produce. He described his previous work as foul and a contribution to “corrupt literature”. The death of Vaughan’s brother, William, may have also contributed to his move from secular poetry. In addition, Vaughan’s father in this period had to defend himself against legal actions intended to demonstrate his carelessness with other people’s money.
The publication of the 1650 edition of Silex Scintillans marked for Vaughan only the beginning of his most active period as a writer. His prose devotional work The Mount of Olives, a kind of companion piece to Silex Scintillans, was published in 1652 as well. It provides prayers for different stages of the day, for prayer in church, and for other purposes. It is written as a “companion volume” to the Book of Common Prayer, to which it alludes frequently, though it had been outlawed under the Commonwealth.
Vaughan sought to keep faith with the prexisting church and with its poets, and his works teach and enable such a keeping of the faith in the midst of what was the most fundamental and radical of crises.
Vaughan also spent time in this period continuing a series of translations similar to that which he had already prepared for publication in Olor Iscanus. He practised medicine and attached to the second volume of Silex Scintillans (1655) a translation of Henry Nollius’ Hermetical Physick. He also went on to produce a translation of Nollius’s The Chymists Key in 1657.
Vaughan’s interest in medicine, especially from a hermetical perspective, led him to a full-time career. Hermeticism for Vaughan was not primarily alchemical, but was concerned with observation and imitation of nature in order to cure the illnesses of the body. Vaughan was able to align this approach with his religious concerns.
Even though there is no evidence that he ever was awarded the M.D. by a university or other authorised body, by the 1670s he had had many successful years of medical practice.
Vaughan died on 23 April 1695, aged 74. He was buried in the churchyard of St Bride’s, Llansantffraed, Powys, where he had spent most of his life.
Writing Style and Influences
Vaughan was heavily influenced by George Herbert, who provided a model for Vaughan’s newly founded spiritual life and literary career. His writing style, such as use of monosyllables and long-drawn alliterations, are very similar to that of Herbert, and it has been said that The Temple, by Herbert, is often seen as the inspiration and model on which Vaughan created his work. Silex Scintillans is most often classed with this collection of Herbert’s and it borrows the same themes, experience, and beliefs as The Temple. Vaughan’s work Mount of Olives also clearly parallels George Herbert.
Aside from Herbert, Vaughan was also influenced by the Welsh countryside that he had grown up and chose to write many of his poems set in this area. His work often shows a lack of sympathy with the world around him and often explores the physical and spiritual world and the obscure relation between the two.
What’s more, although Vaughan is thought to have been a royalist, some poems express contempt for all current authority and lack of zeal for the royalist cause. His poems generally reflect a sense of severe decline, which may mean he lamented the effects of the war on the monarchy and society.
Following the death of his younger brother, Vaughan also drew on personal loss in two well-known poems: “The World” and “They Are All Gone into the World of Light”. “The Retreat” also combines the theme of loss with the corruption of childhood.
Vaughan was also the first poet to use slant rhyme or half rhyme (words that have similar, but not identical, sounds).
Vaughan’s poetry was largely disregarded in his own day and for a century after his death, however he shared in the revival of interest in 17th-century metaphysical poets in the 20th century.
Vaughan was an important devotional poet of the seventeenth century, following the lead of George Herbert. Despite not being as well-known as other poets of his time, such as Andrew Marvell or John Donne, Vaughan is still remembered as contributing greatly to English literature. Although he borrowed phrases from Herbert and other writers and wrote poems with the same titles as Herbert’s, he was one of the most original poets of his day and had great spiritual vision and imagination that enabled him to write freshly and convincingly.
Vaughan influenced many famous poets who came after him, including William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon. His work has also often been said to prefigure and foreshadow the style of Romantic poets who wrote over a century after his death.
- Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646)
- Olor Iscanus (1647)
- Silex Scintillans (1650 and 1655)
- Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions (1652)
- Flores Solitudinis (1654)
- Hermetical Physics (1655), translated from the Latin of Henry Nollius
- The Chymists Key (1657), translated from the Latin of Henry Nollius
- Several translations from the Latin contributed to Thomas Powell’s Humane Industry (1661)
- Thalia Rediviva (1678), a joint collection of poetry with his brother Thomas Vaughan, after Thomas’s death
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Henry Vaughan" https://englishhistory.net/poets/henry-vaughan/, November 18, 2021